Editorial: The City’s new smoke-filled room

There are many perplexing ironies to Mayor Walsh’s rapid embrace of the Olympics bid. Elected as a populist, collaborative leader focused on the city’s working and middle classes, Walsh has made many strides on that platform—yet he inexplicably linked up with the elitist, exclusive, secretive Boston 2024.

Nowhere is the irony more dissonant than in city planning. On the one hand, the mayor has undertaken a much-needed reform of the BRA. On the other hand, he has married the city to an Olympics bid process that is essentially everything bad about the old BRA, only on steroids.

This is a real threat to the new BRA and to the public it has a fresh willingness to serve with more open and intelligible planning.

Not long ago, the BRA was justifiably loathed and feared here for backroom deals and fake processes carried out in service to specific developers and with open disdain for the public. Walsh ordered a review that found, not surprisingly, that’s a lousy way to run a public agency, resulting in incoherent development, unaccounted money and so forth. The BRA still has inherent accountability and conflict-of-interest issues, but the reforms are real, and so is its new commitment to public service.

Today it is the Olympics bid operating with those secret deals, sham meetings and contempt for the public. Consider the very basic questions the City and Olympics bidders still refuse to answer: Why was Boston’s bid selected over other U.S. cities? What specifically convinced the mayor to say yes, and has he even read the entire bid document? Does Franklin Park ever truly get to say yes or no to being a venue? And consider the major issues the mayor and Boston 2024 have already flip-flopped on, from whether taxpayer money would be spent to whether the public should have a vote.

The latest insult to the public intelligence is the “Olympic Planning” office, created solely to service this single private business deal, and funded by it, too. It is yet another device to placate the public while advertising subservience to the real masters at the International Olympic Committee. This office will be “housed under” the BRA.

Why isn’t the BRA reviewing the Olympics bid? The City won’t say, but some truths are apparent: the BRA can’t be totally controlled by Boston 2024, and the Olympics are a distraction from the BRA’s new burst of actual urban planning.

So far, the BRA has avoided being dragged wholesale into the Olympics morass, but it’s getting dangerously close. Inherently secretive, and with the City contractually obligated to say yes, the Olympics threatens to taint the BRA’s reforms, overwhelm its civic work, and erode its building trust.

Mayor Walsh has done an admirable job reforming the BRA. No supposed Olympics benefit is worth wrecking that and similar democratic work, even if it means tearing up a contract or suffering some grotesque U.S. Olympic Committee fine. In clearing out one of the city’s worst smoke-filled rooms, the mayor must not simply blow the smoke into another dark corner.

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