City takes over some Charlestown council duties

The City of Boston has quietly taken over some Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) zoning review duties after a private City Hall meeting with its leaders, the Gazette has learned. The move apparently was triggered by recent lawsuits filed against the council, and the plaintiffs say it bolsters their argument that the CNC—and other neighborhood councils, including JP’s—are government bodies. The City says neighborhood councils are non-governmental.

The City’s CNC move might also affect the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s (JPNC) argument in its own controversial lawsuit that it, too, is a government body.

A judge recently denied a request to merge the CNC and JPNC lawsuits, but they may still affect each other due to the common question of their governmental status. Various neighborhood councils were created by then Mayor Raymond Flynn in the 1980s to advise the City.

In the two Charlestown lawsuits, groups of residents allege that the CNC and its Real Estate Project and Development Committee are government bodies that recently violated the state Open Meeting Law. The defendants deny the council has any government status.

The complaints are partly based on allegations that CNC meetings to review zoning variance request for smaller projects were held without notice or at improper locations. ONS is now taking over those smaller meetings for a trial period through September.

The new system was explained in a March 21 email, obtained by the Gazette, from Real Estate Project and Development Committee chair Mark Rosenshein to CNC members. Rosenshein, CNC attorney John Tobin and the City’s press office did not respond to Gazette questions. But an ONS meeting notice last month in the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge confirmed that ONS is now running those small-project meetings.

“It supports our position” that the CNC is a creature of City government and should be policed by it, said Kevin Joyce, the attorney for the Charlestown plaintiffs. “I believe the action the Mayor’s Office took was definitely in response to the suits being filed.”

In the email, Rosenshein wrote that ONS Director Jay Walsh recently called CNC leaders to City Hall to discuss “inconsistencies” in the CNC’s zoning review meetings and “confusion” about meeting dates and times. The City Hall meeting included Walsh, Charlestown ONS coordinator Danielle Valle Fitzgerald, Rosenshein and the CNC’s chair and 1st vice-chair.

After some negotiation, Rosenshein wrote, it was agreed that CNC will continue reviewing zoning variances for projects with four or more units, while ONS will take over meetings for smaller projects.

Rosenshein wrote that the CNC agreed because it means concerns about meeting notices and times are “no longer our problem.” In addition, he wrote, the CNC at some previous time already operated this way, “so it gets us back to where we were before everyone in town lawyered up and elevated the tension related to zoning and real estate matters.”

At the same, he added, the CNC leaders “have strong doubts that this will actually work” because the effort and grief it will require of ONS. If the City gives up the meetings after the trial period, he said, he hopes it will appreciate the CNC more and “give us a bit more support.”

The next court hearing on the CNC lawsuit is Sept. 26, according to Joyce.

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