Judge rules Charlestown council is public body; cites JPNC case

December 31, 2013
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The Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) is a “public body” that must obey the state Open Meeting Law, a judge ruled last week in a decision issued yesterday.

Whether the ruling will affect the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC), which unsuccessfully claimed to be a “municipal board” in another lawsuit this year, and similar councils around the city is unclear.

In the Charlestown ruling, the judge cited the JPNC’s suit, where it claimed to have a City-granted duty to review zoning projects, yet also said it was not subject to the Open Meeting Law. But the Charlestown case hinged on that council’s involvement in distributing City funds, which the JPNC does not do.

Kevin Joyce, the attorney and former City Inspectional Services Department chief representing the Charlestown residents who sued to open up the council’s meetings, said he believes the decision applies to all neighborhood councils.

“It’s the first precedent-setting case I know of that addresses the issue of public body [status] and the Open Meeting Law applying to [neighborhood councils],”Joyce told the Gazette. He added that he thinks the judge’s general definition of public bodies applies to the various neighborhood councils.

“Once you’re in that realm, you as members of the neighborhood council must conduct yourselves” within the Open Meeting Law’s bounds, he said.

The Open Meeting Law requires public bodies to announce their meetings in advance, make them open to the public, and provide meeting minutes afterward, among other things.

Former Mayor Raymond Flynn formed the various neighborhood councils around the city in the 1980s to advise City government. Most are now elected by neighborhood residents, though one in West Roxbury is still appointed by the mayor. A Gazette review earlier this year found that some councils are closing tied to City government and operate under a wide variety of rules and procedures.

The Charlestown complaints include closed-door meetings about distributing “mitigation” funds that developers give to the City and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). The BRA designated the CNC as Charlestown’s mitigation fund distributor.

In two merged lawsuits filed earlier this year, residents protested that the CNC’s Real Estate Project Development Committee violated the Open Meeting Law. In a Dec. 24 decision, Justice Peter Lauriat of Suffolk County Superior Court agreed.

The CNC claimed it is not a public body, and relied heavily on the JPNC’s lawsuit decision as a precedent. A year ago, the JPNC’s chair, on behalf of the whole council, sued the City and a developer, alleging that zoning variances for a S. Huntington Avenue real estate project were improperly granted. A judge shot down the JPNC’s claim to be a “municipal board” with the ability to file such a suit. The JPNC appealed, but settled the case earlier this month.

Because both controversies involved the governmental status of neighborhood councils, the Charlestown plaintiffs tried to merge their lawsuit with that of the JPNC earlier this year, but a judge kept them separate.

In his Charlestown ruling, Lauriat noted that the JPNC case addressed the council’s advisory role, not direct handling of City funds. He also emphasized that the judge’s decision specifically left open the question of whether the Open Meeting Law applies to the JPNC.

Lauriat said the CNC meets the legal definition of a public body: a multi-member body empowered to act collectively for a “public purpose” and performing an “essentially governmental function.” He also said the overall CNC and its various committees are not separate entities. Given all of that, he ruled, the CNC’s Development Committee “must be deemed a public body subject to the requirements of the Open Meeting Law.”

“I think it’s very important to the community,” Joyce said about the ruling. “The key to the Open Meeting Law is transparency. It ensures transparency in the way money is distributed in communities.”