BRA lacks rules and records, audit finds

August 1, 2014
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The Boston Redevelopment Authority lacks proper policies and record-keeping practices, and has lost track of millions of dollars, according to an audit ordered by Mayor Martin Walsh.

The Mayor’s Office and the BRA’s acting director called the findings “troubling” and pledge to reform the agency for better accountability and transparency. Among the undocumented items are promises of affordable housing in new developments—a major Jamaica Plain issue.

The findings are no surprise in JP and many other neighborhoods, where residents have long criticized the quasi-public planning and economic development agency as secretive and unaccountable. Many developers aren’t fans, either.

However, Walsh, who took office in January, is the first public official in decades to do anything about it. Former Mayor Thomas Menino and previous BRA directors and City Council leaders rebuffed calls for audits and reforms. Menino wielded the BRA as one of his most powerful and feared tools for and against big developments.

The BRA “has been criticized in the past for needing to be more predictable and transparent with its decision-making,” the Mayor’s Office said in a press release about the audit. The results show an agency “in dire need of reform,” it said.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to make the Boston Redevelopment Authority a more modern, nimble, transparent, and responsive agency,” Walsh said in a press release. “This report lays the groundwork for improvements that have already begun and will continue to unfold.”                     “The report raises many serious and troubling concerns about how the organization has operated over the years,” said BRA Acting Director Brian Golden, who previously served as the BRA’s executive secretary, in a press release. “We embrace these findings. This is an opportunity to strengthen the way we do business so that we’re able to serve the public in a more efficient, accountable, and transparent manner.”

The audit, conducted by the Boston firm KPMG, says one of the BRA’s main problems is a lack of virtually any modern or complete documentation of its activities. Developer filings are still made only on paper, and much of what happens next is either thinly documented or not documented at all.

That “reduces the transparency surrounding the decision-making process,” the audit report says. It also means that “appropriate monitoring of activities and compliance with key documents cannot and does not occur.”

A major gap involves tracking of affordable housing units and job-creation funds that developers agree to as mitigation for large projects. In JP, the community has agreed to many new developments only after negotiating for more affordability in big projects via BRA meetings.

But the BRA has no written policy about those mitigations, the audit found, and “there is no effective system in place” for tracking developers’ compliance with their promises. There also is no list of existing deed restrictions to keep certain properties affordable.

And some developers are indeed getting away with not following through, according to the audit report, which cites several examples—none of them in JP. One is a Fenway project that the BRA allowed to move forward despite promised affordable housing and job fund payments not being made for more than a year past the deadline.

In response to the audit, the BRA already has transferred oversight of affordable housing commitments to the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development, which specializes in affordable housing.

“Because DND is the lead agency when it comes to this issue, we feel like the transition makes a lot of sense and will help to improve tracking and accountability in the future,” BRA spokesperson Nick Martin told the Gazette.

Martin added that the BRA, at Walsh’s request, will “do a thorough review of existing developer commitments so that we can better determine to what extent certain commitments were not followed through on. We’re also beginning a process of upgrading our compliance systems in order to better track things in the future.”

The audit found a bevy of other problems. The BRA failed to track the status of leases on property it owns and is owed rent in several cases. It has no written policy on how its planning department’s design review works. It lacks any real coordination with the Economic Development Industrial Corporation, a nonprofit it merged with and essentially absorbed in the 1990s. It does not have a chief financial officer.

Among the stranger discoveries was that the staff salary structure appears to be cut-and-pasted from an entirely different organization’s manual, as it refers to the agency as a “health care organization” in one spot.

The Mayor’s Office says this is just the beginning of BRA review. The audit report itself suggests further review of how the planning department works in relation to the rest of the BRA. Critics, such as local City Councilor Matt O’Malley, have for years called for strictly separating the agency’s planning and economic development functions.

For many years, the BRA has been known for back-room deals and a culture of secrecy, as reported in the Gazette and other media. A decade ago, it helped the Boston City Council run secret meetings to plan a reauthorization of the legislation enabling it to exist. A citizen lawsuit resulted in a court fining the council $11,000 for violating the state Open Meeting Law, but it was too late to undo the meetings’ results.

The community advisory committees (CACs) formed by the BRA and the Mayor’s Office to advise the agency about major developments also have an infamous history of secrecy. Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley has warned them about Open Meeting Law violations several times over the years. In JP, BRA officials have sometimes staged secret CAC meetings. Five years ago, the Jackson Square CAC banned the media—specifically the Gazette—from its meetings. While the BRA claimed to have no control over such secret CAC actions, the Gazette later documented BRA officials discussing ways to change their internal operating procedures.

A 2009 Gazette investigation found that the CACs are formed with no rules and few records—findings very similar to what the recent audit discovered in other parts of the BRA.