JPNC chair’s role in donation debate questioned

November 9, 2012
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The head of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) has stirred controversy—including the resignation of a longtime member of the JPNC and questions over his own role as chair—after issuing a report about campaign contributions made to elected officials this year by developers of two disputed S. Huntington Avenue housing projects that are up for JPNC review.

Two developers or their staffers, lawyers and consultants made almost $17,000 in campaign donations to local elected officials, while under city review to build luxury apartments on S. Huntington Avenue, the release states. Some members of the JPNC stated during an Oct. 30 meeting that JPNC Chair Benjamin Day should not have released such a statement, even as a private citizen, without first discussing its contents with the council.

The release strongly suggests that one of the projects was recently approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) due to the donations.

The JPNC debated Day’s actions at that meeting, with some members calling for new ethics guidelines. Stephen Lussier, a former JPNC member and current city Impact advisory Group (IAG) member for one of the projects, and this newspaper have called for Chair Benjamin Day’s resignation.

Mayor Thomas Menino; state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez; and City Councilors Mike Ross, Matt O’Malley, John Connolly and Felix Arroyo received donations from developers Curtis Kemeny and Anthony Nader or staffers, lawyers and consultants working for them.

Kemeny is planning to build 196 luxury units at 161 S. Huntington Ave. Nader is planning on building 195 luxury units at 105A S. Huntington Ave.

Day said he issued the report as a private citizen without mentioning his JPNC leadership position, and also emphasized that he was not accusing officials of corruption, though he continued to imply some kind of impropriety.

Day told the Gazette that he is not accusing anyone of corruption, nor does he have any evidence to suggest it. But he added, “The fact that the money is there really paints the process.”

“The chair was independently acting in secret, not in consultation of the council, embarrassing elected officials,” JPNC member David Baron said at the Oct. 30 JPNC meeting. “Who on the council makes press releases in their own names? That’s not the traditionally the way we’ve done things on the council.”

“I think [the impropriety] was sending the release out without approval,” JPNC member Andrea Howley said at the meeting.

“It is unusual to hold the chair of a lowly neighborhood council to such a standard,” Day responded at the meeting. “Everyone I spoke to, I made it clear that it was my own personal thing.”

“I’m personally very grateful to Ben [Day] and the others for making me aware of [the donations],” JPNC member Jesse White said at the meeting. She was one of several members defending Day.

Francesca Fordiani, a nine-year JPNC member, resigned Oct. 29 over the way Day created and issued the report and the resulting impact on the JPNC’s reputation.

“This would be damaging enough to the Council if it was done only by a handful of members, but for the Chair himself to act with this reckless disregard for the Council and its open, public, deliberative process is simply bad faith,” Fordiani wrote in a resignation letter.

Day issued the report with the help of some other JPNC members and Kevin Moloney of the Jamaica Pond Association, who is on City advisory groups for both housing projects. The full JPNC was not aware of Day and others working on the report.

“These are huge projects with huge amounts of money endeavoring to make some fundamental changes” in the neighborhood, Moloney told the Gazette. “If I thought there was anything inappropriate in the press release, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with it.”

“People have a right to think about [the donations] and make their own conclusions,” Moloney added. “Letting folks in the community know that these developers [and their teams] are making substantial political contributions is something that deserves to be out in public. If it’s embarrassing to some public officials, oh well. What do they say about the heat and the kitchen?”

According to Moloney, tensions have been building on the JPNC for a year, after Day won the chairmanship instead of Fordiani.

“Over the last year, members of the council and I have clashed over issues of process, over what the rules are and when they apply, and how we resolve questions about the rules,” Fordiani told the Gazette.

“What I was really objecting to was that, procedurally, there was no opportunity to have a conversation. All the points in the press release could have been raised in an open meeting,” which would have allowed a conversation, Baron said.

“I do think there is a policy discussion to be had” about members of the council speaking publicly as private citizens, but “I don’t know if there are going to be next steps or what they might be,” Baron concluded.

Day has raised eyebrows before with his private activism while serving as JPNC chair. Last year, he joined in a public protest at the opening of the new Whole Foods Market in Hyde Square while the council was still attempting to create a neighborhoods benefits agreement with the grocer.

Lussier called for Day to step aside during a Oct. 30 JPNC meeting.

“I think the council needs to take a vote to get him out,” Lussier told the Gazette last week. “This was not money-in-the-bra” like former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

Wilkerson was caught on videotape accepting bribes in 2007 and went to prison last year. She was infamously recorded in the act of stuffing illicit cash into her bra at a restaurant table.

“I’m mad. I want him to resign. I won’t settle for anything else,” Lussier continued. Lussier added that he planned to start a petition asking for Day’s resignation after the presidential election on Tuesday, after the Gazette’s deadline.

Correction: this article has been edited to correct a misattributed quote. Fordiani, not Baron, stated that, “Over the last year, members of the council and I have clashed over issues of process, over what the rules are and when they apply, and how we resolve questions about the rules.”