The state Attorney General (AG) Office has found that the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) board violated the Open Meeting Law during its meeting last March when it voted on the Plan: JP/Rox study.
But the AG’s Office did clear the BPDA board on several other allegations regarding violating the Open Meeting Law during that meeting.
The BPDA board during a March 2, 2017 meeting approved the Plan: JP/Rox study by a 4-1 vote. During the meeting, protesters were videotaped and several were removed. The “Keep It 100 for Real Affordable Housing and Racial Justice” group led protests leading up to, and during, the meeting.
Plan: JP/Rox is the long-awaited planning study for the Columbus Avenue and Washington Street corridor, from Jackson Square to Egleston Square to Forest Hills. The plan will eventually create new zoning for the area. The plan has undergone several revisions. The latest version can be found here: bit.ly/2k1quTR. BPDA has delayed the zoning review process for Plan: JP/Rox until a transportation plan for the area has been done.
Lisa Thompson and Ruth Rickenbacker, two Jamaica Plain residents and supporters of the “Keep It 100 for Real Affordable Housing and Racial Justice” group, filed a complaint with the AG Office last July alleging that the BPDA board violated the Open Meeting Law during the March 2 meeting by 1.) failing to properly post a meeting notice; 2.) holding a meeting in a venue that could not accommodate interested members of the public; 3.) permitting recording of a meeting without first making the required announcement; 4.) improperly removing members of the public from the meeting room and denying others access to the meeting room; 5.) quietly and quickly taking a vote.
The AG Office in its ruling issued on Feb. 28 found the BPDA board did not violate the Open Meeting Law for allegations 1 through 3, and 5. The AG Office ruled that the BPDA board was authorized to remove disruptive members of the public from the meeting, but violated the Open Meeting Law by failing to admit members waiting outside to fill vacant seats in the meeting room.
The complaint of Thompson and Rickenbacker also alleges that the BPDA board removed people of color from the meeting room quicker than white audience members.
The AG Office in its ruling responded, “We reviewed the complaint’s allegations of racial discrimination in consultation with the Civil Rights Division of our office. This review consisted largely of reviewing the videos provided by the complainants depicting conduct of police officers inside the meeting room. Certain actions in the videos raise concerns—in particular, that police officers at certain points attempt to remove advocates who could not be seen on the video to be causing any disturbance. Where the persons targeted for removal here appear to be racial or ethnic minorities, we are concerned as to whether they were being treated differently than white members of the public who were in attendance. However, without video footage of the entire meeting, and specifically all the instances where police asked attendants to leave, we cannot determine whether the actions taken were discriminatory. In any event, allegations of racial bias would not, in and of themselves, violate the Open Meeting Law.”
Asked to respond to the ruling, BPDA spokesperson Bonnie McGilpin released a statement: “We are pleased with the finding by the Attorney General’s Office that the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) complied with the Open Meeting Law on almost every single account during the March 2, 2017 Board meeting. At the same time, we take very seriously the decision that finds that the BPDA failed to admit community members to fill empty seats after the Boston Police Department took action in what they determined to be a public safety matter. The BPDA prioritizes creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all, and we are working with the Attorney General’s Office for guidance and best practices in the event a similar situation occurs at a future BPDA-sponsored meeting.”
The “Keep It 100 for Real Affordable Housing and Racial Justice” group released a statement saying, “We hope that the BPDA can take full responsibility and directly acknowledge that they blocked community members from entering the meeting, and that they allowed police to harass and attempt to remove people who were not speaking out. From that acknowledgment, we hope that they can commit to three basic solutions: allow people to enter their meetings, don’t remove people who are not speaking up, and don’t target people of color.”
The statement continued, “It would not be productive if the BPDA looks for a way to justify excluding people based on public safety concerns or passing responsibility onto police officers. In the past, the BPDA has wrongly called community members at board votes ‘intimidating.’ There is no threat to public safety from people assembled peacefully, whether they are speaking up, waiting to get in, or just trying to watch a vote. Many people of color attended the vote on Plan JP/Rox because they were deeply concerned about their community, and labeling them as a threat to public safety leads to racially discriminatory actions, which the Attorney General’s office acknowledged may have occurred. The real threat we should focus on is not peaceful people at a meeting; the real threat is the displacement and gentrification that are caused by planning development without strong affordability commitments and true community decision-making.”