4 would-be mayors had roles in gov’t secrecy scandal

July 19, 2013
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Four current mayoral candidates played very different roles in a 2005 scandal about secret Boston City Council meetings that led a judge to fine the council $11,000 for violating the state Open Meeting Law.

City Councilors Rob Consalvo and Mike Ross joined in the secret meetings, which were about a bacteria outbreak at a Boston University lab and the renewal of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) massive powers.

Meanwhile, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley and City Councilor Charles Yancey were among those warning all along that the meetings were illegal.

Ross later acknowledged that the secret meetings were troubling and, as council president, led transparency reforms. Consalvo recently told the Gazette that it is debatable whether the council ever did anything wrong and said he is a leader in government transparency. Conley and Yancey did not respond to recent interview requests.

A group of residents sued the council over the secret meetings and the controversy became a major issue in the last mayoral race in 2009. The candidates in that race included Michael Flaherty, who was council president during the secret meetings in 2003-2005, and Kevin McCrea, a real estate developer who was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. McCrea said that City government was still too secretive, while Flaherty credited the lawsuit with opening his eyes to government transparency issues.

The 11 secret meetings all addressed controversial topics of public interest. One was about the Boston University bacteria outbreak, which happened while BU was proposing a widely protested biolab to study extremely dangerous diseases. The other 10 meetings were about the BRA seeking an extension of the legislation that allows it to exist and to operate with extraordinary power over Boston real estate development and planning. Councilors and BRA officials attempted to sneak around the Open Meeting Law by limiting the number of councilors in a meeting at any one time, under the theory that it technically would not be a City Council meeting that way.

At the time, several councilors, including Yancey, refused to participate in the secret meetings and repeatedly sent Flaherty letters warning that the meetings were illegal and undemocratic. Conley, whose office can enforce the Open Meeting Law, wrote a formal warning to the council that the BU meeting was illegal after word of it leaked out.

The majority of councilors ignored the warnings and later fought the lawsuit in court. A judge ruled against the council in 2009, strongly criticizing its deliberate violations of the Open Meeting Law and fining it $1,000 for each secret meeting.

By that time, Ross had become the council’s president. He instituted a variety of transparency reforms, and a follow-up court hearing in 2011 found that the council was adhering to the Open Meeting Law.

“The plaintiffs might have had a good point about meetings taking place in back rooms,” Ross told the Gazette in 2009, adding that there was “never malicious intent” by the council.

“We’ve made the council more transparent,” he added. “I’m not patting myself on the back too hard, because it’s something we should have been doing a long time ago.”

In a recent interview, Consalvo strongly suggested he thinks the council did not violate the law, but repeatedly declined to clarify that. Instead, he said, the current transparency of the council is key.

“If I win [the Mayor’s Office], we can talk about whether [the council] broke the Open Meeting Law,” he said. “There can be a debate about whether we broke the Open Meeting Law.”

“It’s all in the past,” he added. “We’ve been in compliance, changed the way we do business. We have a crystal-clear record since then.”

Consalvo said that he has “always been a leader on transparency,” pointing to the ordinance he and Councilor Steve Murphy created that requires councilors to file financial disclosure statements.

“As mayor, I’m going to continue to run the most transparent form of government possible,” Consalvo said, describing public input as key to good City services. “I want people to see what we’re doing. We have nothing to hide.”