Charlestown residents seek to join JPNC lawsuit

March 1, 2013
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The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s (JPNC) legal battle to be declared a government body has attracted the attention of Charlestown residents who recently sued the neighborhood council there for alleged Open Meeting Law violations. The Charlestown plaintiffs are seeking to team up their lawsuits with that of the JPNC.

That is just one way the JPNC’s lawsuit is putting a spotlight on other, little-examined neighborhood councils around the city. A Gazette review of those councils found that some have close ties to City government, and the presidents of two councils told the Gazette their groups are at least partly government bodies.

The West Roxbury Neighborhood Council (WRNC) is appointed by the mayor. The current president of the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) is an aide on the staff of a Boston city councilor. And the lawsuits against the Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) include allegations that it oversees the disbursement of some City funds.

Jeffrey Wiesner, a JPNC member and the attorney representing the council in its legal battle, called the Gazette’s discoveries “interesting,” but declined further comment on the still-pending lawsuit.

All of the remaining Boston neighborhood councils were created by Mayor Raymond Flynn in the 1980s as advisory bodies appointed by him and staffed by the City. It appears their legal status was never clarified, and most have become elected bodies since then.

The JPNC is attempting to sue the City and the developer of the Home for Little Wanderers complex at 161 S. Huntington Ave., claiming its zoning variances were wrongly granted. But to have the right to sue, the JPNC first must prove it is a “municipal board” empowered to review zoning matters. The City says it is not.

In two lawsuits filed last month, some Charlestown residents claim the CNC’s Real Estate Project Development Committee repeatedly violated the Open Meeting Law and operated with a “lack of decorum,” plaintiff Melissa Brennan told the Gazette. In JP, the council wants to sue the City, and in Charlestown, the residents want to sue the council, but the arguments hinge on the same thing—whether the councils are government bodies or not.

“They’re just kind of running wild. We felt this was the only way to get some control,” Brennan, who is also an attorney, said of the CNC.

On Feb. 22, the Charlestown plaintiffs served a motion to merge their lawsuits with the JPNC’s so a court can settle the issue for both councils, according to their attorney, Kevin Joyce. Joyce knows the neighborhood council system well, as he is the former commissioner of the City’s Inspectional Services Department and an ex-City attorney. He would only comment about the lawsuits off the record.

“I can’t [comment] because it’s in litigation and it’s exploding tremendously,” said John Tobin, a Charlestown attorney representing the CNC in the lawsuits. He confirmed that the CNC denies it is a government body.

The Charlestown lawsuits include claims that the CNC doubles as an Impact Advisory Group (IAG) to direct the disbursement of “mitigation” funds that developers of large real estate projects give to the City and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Under zoning code, IAGs are typically separate groups appointed by the mayor and the BRA to review large developments. In JP, IAGs are separate from the JPNC.

CNC chairman Tom Cunha and Development Committee chair Mark Rosenshein did not respond to Gazette questions.

The City previously stated that the JPNC is not a government body. Asked about the CNC and other councils, Mayor’s Office spokesperson John Guilfoil deferred to the City’s law department, which did not respond, but added that “my understanding is that neighborhood councils are not a body of City government.”

The JPNC has to prove not only that it was created by City government, but also that it is empowered to review zoning decisions. The presidents of the West Roxbury and North End councils told the Gazette that their groups are government bodies in nature, but also that they are purely advisory, lack power or authority, and sometimes see the City go against their wishes.

“I think it is a quasi-government body,” WRNC president Larry Costello said of his council. “[But] we have no real authority…It would be hard to say we have powers because we’re always telling people we don’t.”

“So as to whether or not we’re a municipal board, that’s semantics. You’d have to have a lawyer figure that out,” Costello said.

“Would I say we’re a government body? I’d say, yes, we are, because we’re elected by the people of the neighborhood,” said NEWNC president Stephen Passacantilli. “But we’re just an advisory board to the City of Boston.”

In practice, the line between the neighborhood and the government can look blurry with the West Roxbury and North End councils.

The WRNC is still appointed by the mayor, according to Costello, who himself was appointed by Flynn.

“We serve at the pleasure of the mayor. He could blow it up,” Costello said of the WRNC.

He said members are appointed infrequently—“these days, if I feel we need more members.” The last appointment was made by Mayor Thomas Menino about three years ago, he said. The process involves a candidate gathering 25 signatures, writing a letter to the City, and then undergoing review and appointment by the mayor.

The WRNC otherwise operates independently, without any City staff.

In the North End, the NEWNC is elected by the public, like the JPNC. But current president Passacantilli is also an aide to Boston City Councilor Sal LaMattina.

Asked if the NEWNC is more like a government body with him in charge, Passacantilli said it is not, because he is a neighborhood activist who would be involved in the council regardless of his job. “But it’s a good question,” he added.

Costello and Passacantilli both indicated little concern for how the JPNC lawsuit might impact their councils.

“It wouldn’t change the way we do things,” Passacantilli said of the possibility of neighborhood councils being ruled official government bodies.

The JPNC’s claim to have zoning authority is rooted in the City’s zoning code, which specifically names it as among the groups that will advise the City on future zoning matters.

A Gazette review of the zoning code found that all neighborhood zoning codes mention some specific neighborhood group. In most cases, the group is the ad hoc planning committee that the City usually creates to review the rezoning of an area. In other cases, the group is a local neighborhood association or one of the Flynn-era neighborhood councils.

Among the groups named in local zoning codes are the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, the Charlestown Neighborhood Council and the Roxbury Neighborhood Council (RNC). The RNC is given a specific extra power in the code that no other group has, to review and comment on projects before the BRA takes any action on them.

It is unclear whether the mention of other councils in the zoning code will have any impact on the JPNC’s legal argument.

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