Editorials: BRA reform

August 1, 2014
By

The BRA “is in dire need of reform.”

For once, that isn’t just residents, or political candidates, or disapproving judges in lawsuits, or the Gazette saying it.

That’s straight from the Mayor’s Office, and it’s about time.

Mayor Walsh is doing an outstanding job at checking items off his list of campaign promises. BRA reform is a big one, and he is to be applauded for ordering and conducting this audit so rapidly. Walsh has done more to improve transparency and efficiency in the City’s development process in seven months than anyone else in office has done in at least 15 years.

Of all the problems found in the audit, perhaps the most dismaying and cynical is the lack of tracking of affordable housing promises. An agency notorious as a rubber stamp for every mega-developer’s gentrification fantasia plan couldn’t bother to follow up on these tiny, insufficient sops to the public conscience? For shame.

As BRA reform proceeds—and we hope it concludes with a dissolution of the entire agency and the formation of City planning and economic development departments—it is equally important to remember why officials let it get so shoddy.

After all, the dire need for BRA reform has been evident for decades to just about everyone except those in a position to execute it. Former Mayor Menino and former BRA directors treated even the most undeniable criticisms as a combination of municipal treason and mental illness. Eight years ago, Boston City Council spent tens of thousands of dollars, not on auditing the BRA, but on fighting a citizen lawsuit over illegal secret meetings it held with BRA officials.

First, the BRA is fundamentally—in its enabling legislation—a 1950s-era “urban renewal” agency. That’s a euphemism for tearing down entire neighborhoods, with no input from them, to make totalitarian-style redevelopments. That’s why it is a quasi-public, largely unaccountable, agency. It’s a heritage that clearly resonates throughout the BRA today, in structure, practice and policy.

Second, mayors have found the BRA’s massive power too tempting to resist using as a base of brute-force power. And in Boston’s strong-mayor form of government, many city councilors are forced to go along to get along, while the reform-minded struggle to gain traction.

And third, the BRA’s secretive, top-down style fits all too well in the darker side of Massachusetts political tradition, where the back-room deal remains king, as the latest round of State House scandal reminds us.

As long as the BRA remains outdated, overpowered and only barely democratic, it will continue to have transparency, efficiency and accountability problems.

Mayor Walsh is only getting started on his reforms, and already has demonstrated his determination and effectiveness. He has our support in his continuing review of the BRA, along with fair warning about the depth of the reformer’s challenge.