Mayor’s Office: No records on how CACs formed

December 18, 2009
By

John Ruch

E-mails show BRA advisory role

The Mayor’s Office has no documents about how Mayor Thomas Menino appointed two community advisory committees (CAC) to review multi-million-dollar real estate projects in Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill, according to a response to a Gazette request for e-mail records.

That means that the Mayor’s Office staff either never communicated via e-mail about forming the Jackson Square and Mission Hill CACs—which appears to be unlikely—or the e-mails were deleted forever. Such deletion likely would not violate current public records laws, because the e-mails would be more than two years old.

The Mayor’s Office did provide the Gazette with 11 more recent e-mails about changing the membership of both CACs after they already existed.

One of those e-mails shows a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) official arranging a way for the Jackson Square CAC to change its operating procedures—a direct contradiction to previous BRA claims that the agency has no such power or role over CACs.

In September, the Gazette filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Mayor’s Office and the BRA for all e-mails related to the organization of the two CACs. The Mayor’s Office provided its records last month. The BRA has not responded at all.

The Jackson Square CAC formed in 2006 to review the $200 million redevelopment of 11 acres of land in Jackson Square. The Mission Hill CAC formed in 2001 to review the large-scale redevelopment of various properties formerly owned by Mission Church.

CACs are appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino, who typically meets with members in a private “orientation” session. The BRA organizes the member nomination process, and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services reportedly notifies members of their selection. Once they are up and running, CACs give input to the BRA about development projects.

A Gazette investigation earlier this year found that the CACs form with no standard rules, structures, operating procedures or documentation. The public records about the Jackson Square and Mission Hill CACs known to exist consist of two thin, incomplete file folders about nominees, and the 11 Mayor’s Office e-mails.

No records

The e-mails provided to the Gazette by the Mayor’s Office include seven 2009 e-mails about the Jackson Square CAC and three 2004-05 e-mails about the Mission Hill CAC. The Jackson Square e-mails generally relate to then BRA project manager Rodney Sinclair’s attempts to “revamp the Jackson Square CAC membership.”

Those 11 e-mails are the only records the Mayor’s Office has about organizing the CACs Menino appointed, spokesperson Christopher Loh confirmed.

“The documents provided to you are the result of an extensive and thorough search of all Mayor’s Office records pertaining to your request,” Loh said in an e-mail to the Gazette. “Unfortunately, we did not find any documents regarding the original formation of the Mission Hill CAC formed in 2001 or the Jackson Square CAC in 2006. I urge you to please file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, where you may find additional documentation pertinent to your search.”

The existing e-mails about other periods in the CACs’ lives strongly suggest that the Mayor’s Office and the BRA had e-mail discussions about their formations as well.

The BRA surely had at least some e-mail records about both CACs. Most of the CAC e-mails provided by the Mayor’s Office originated with BRA officials. And the BRA’s file on the Mission Hill CAC nominations includes some e-mails from 2001.

Both the Mayor’s Office and the BRA ran into major controversy earlier this year for deleting e-mails that should have been saved as public records. Both agencies say they now have proper e-mail archiving systems.

Under current public records laws, it appears that no e-mails from the period of the CAC formations would have been required to be saved. But if there were e-mails from that time, it is unclear when they were deleted.

BRA role

CACs are controversial around Boston for sometimes holding meetings behind closed doors and for kicking out reporters and members of the public from their meetings.

The Jackson Square CAC earlier this year banned the media from its meetings, a decision that has since been reversed. That ban sparked the Gazette information requests about CAC selection, training and rules. The BRA and the Mayor’s Office claimed that they were helpless to stop CACs from banning the public or the media, viewing CACs as independent groups that are not covered by the state Open Meeting Law.

The Jackson Square CAC’s vote to ban the media from its meetings was made without a quorum—the minimum number of members required under its own rules to make a valid vote. Lack of a quorum was a regular problem for the CAC, which repeatedly considered attempting to lower its quorum to below the standard “half of the members plus one” definition.

At an April CAC meeting, Sinclair told CAC members that they were free to change their quorum rules.

While that appeared to be official BRA advice, a BRA spokesperson later told the Gazette that Sinclair “did not advise the CAC that they could suspend the quorum rules…Since the CAC can decide on its own rules, Mr. Sinclair simply stated that should they wish to, they could update how they define a quorum.”

But an Aug. 7 e-mail, part of the documents provided to the Gazette by the Mayor’s Office, shows that Sinclair later did more than that. In the e-mail, sent to various city and BRA officials, Sinclair described the Jackson Square CAC’s quorum problems, then asked: “Any suggestions as to how they could reduce their requirements for a quorum without seeming to disregard their unofficial operating procedures?”

Brenda McKenzie, the BRA’s director of economic development and coordinator of public process, responded by suggesting that the officials “connect on how best to proceed.”

There are no records showing what happened after that.

The e-mail was sent to Jay Walsh, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, and BRA project manager Heather Campisano, with copies sent to McKenzie, BRA Deputy Director Muhammad Ali-Salaam and others. It was part of a discussion about Sinclair’s attempts to seek nominees to replace inactive CAC members.

“Would we open the process again or just use old nominations? I would suggest starting over to get new people involved,” Walsh wrote on Aug. 6 in response to the beginning of the e-mail thread, essentially calling for a re-nomination process. Sinclair indicated it was too late for that. In recent months, a new BRA project manager, John Fitzgerald, has taken over the project.