Former Mayor Raymond Flynn supports the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s (JPNC) right to sue the City in its controversial lawsuit, he told the Gazette in a phone interview March 8.
Flynn created the JPNC and other neighborhood councils around the city in the 1980s to advise City Hall. He said he did not consider them to be government bodies, but they did have a lot of “authority” and were required stops for zoning and licensing requests.
“We didn’t constitute neighborhood councils just to rubber-stamp decisions we agree with. It’s a two-way street,” said Flynn.
“The reasoning and intent was to give the people a voice, [and] empower the people in the neighborhood on those issues that affect quality of life and are important to them,” Flynn said. “So if there’s a neighborhood council and they don’t have veto power over a project, but if their voice is being ignored, those are solid legal grounds…for bringing a lawsuit to challenge the decision of ignoring those legally constituted neighborhood councils.”
“I’m glad to hear Ray Flynn speak out in favor of the neighborhood councils that he created, because they appear to be the last bastion against an almost complete centralization of authority in Boston City Hall,” said JPNC chair Benjamin Day in an email to the Gazette. “We wouldn’t be doing our job if we allowed the Zoning Board of Appeals to flout the law in favor of yet another high-end development, this one with wall-to-wall community opposition.”
“Mayor Flynn created the neighborhood councils and imbued them authority to challenge City officials and to play an integral role in governing the City of Boston, especially concerning local zoning and licensing matters,” said JPNC member Jeffrey Wiesner, who is also the attorney representing the council in its lawsuit. “We are happy to hear that he in fact supports the JPNC in its challenge to the Zoning Board of Appeals.”
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. The backdrop of the dispute is that there was widespread local opposition to the project, including from the JPNC. But to have the right to sue, the JPNC first must prove it is a “municipal board” empowered to review zoning matters. The City of Boston says it is not.
“I didn’t look at them as a branch of City government. I looked at them as strong representatives of the diversity of city neighborhoods,” Flynn said, adding that in some ways the councils were intended to be a counterbalance to government. “I didn’t see it as another government board of bureaucrats or people being controlled or having political ties to City Hall.”
Flynn also backed the general idea behind a lawsuit pending against the Charlestown Neighborhood Council, where residents are claiming it is a government body to which the state Open Meeting Law applies.
Flynn said he does not know whether the Open Meeting Law applies to neighborhood councils, but said they should stick to the “spirit” of the law. They have a “responsibility to have open meetings and due process,” he said.
If a neighborhood council held meetings on short notice or with no notice to opponents, he said, “I think a judge would see it for what it is. You can’t just jam something down people’s throats and call it an open meeting.”
“Mayor Flynn’s comments cut right to the core of it, why [neighborhood councils] were created, especially his comments regarding the Open Meeting Law,” said Kevin Joyce, the former City Inspectional Services Department commissioner who is an attorney for the Charlestown plaintiffs. “Why wouldn’t they want to have open meetings?”
Flynn first learned of the lawsuit from the Gazette and based his comments on their general issues and his intent in creating the council system. “Legislative intent is big” in legal decisions, he noted.
Flynn said he remains a strong supporter of the neighborhood council system and that it should be strengthened and expanded.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think we’re hearing enough from the neighborhoods. I don’t think their voices are being represented or heard,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in the neighborhood councils and empowering people and giving them a voice.”
Flynn said the councils were so useful to his administration that he personally attended many of their meetings.
“We took them very seriously and gave them a lot of power,” Flynn said. “It was good politics and it was good policy.”
He described the political situation that led him to create councils and also the method of their formation.
“People felt disenfranchised, disillusioned, that they weren’t being heard. People felt that most of the decisions were made in City Hall by a few people,” particularly on zoning and licensing matters, he said. Forming neighborhood councils ensured “formally structured” local input on those decisions, he said.
Flynn said he made it clear that anyone seeking variances or licenses “had to go through the neighborhood council first,” if their neighborhood had one. That prevented applicants from staging a fake community meeting of their friends and passing it off as local input, he said.
“This was a constitutionally constructed neighborhood council that took a vote on it and discussed it,” he said.
The councils also reflected his belief that open discussion leads to better decisions and general agreement. In real estate developments, he said, community support results in “a project you can be proud of,” while going ahead over community opposition makes “a project people will be bitterly divided over and feel betrayed.”
The councils were not created all at once, and only in neighborhoods that wanted or needed them, Flynn said. He recalled creating them in Allston/Brighton, Beacon Hill/Back Bay, Charlestown, East Boston, JP, Mission Hill, the North End, the South End and West Roxbury. He also considered the Prudential Project Advisory Committee, a neighborhood association coalition known as PruPAC, as a version of the idea.
“I always thought they were one of the better ones in terms of participation,” Flynn said of the JPNC.
He appointed the council members after hearing recommendations taken from informal conversations with local activists and leaders. He generally said yes to the recommendations, but said he also kept diversity in mind.
“I wanted to make sure they represented the community,” including diversity in race, sexual orientation and politics, Flynn said. He said that included appointing people who did not support him politically. Many of the councils, including in JP, later became elected by the residents.
Neighborhoods that did not want councils usually already had great political power, Flynn said. That includes his home neighborhood of South Boston, which since has seen a decline in political clout and debates over gentrification and institutional expansion.
“The community is complaining bitterly about [development controversies],” Flynn said of Southie. “I say to myself, ‘This is a perfect example of why we needed neighborhood councils.’”