Probity or power?

On May 9, 2014, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

shelton_webBy William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

Last month Mayor Curtatone filed a proposed ethics ordinance amendment. Its stated goal is that “Non-elected City employees are to work in an effective, efficient, and professional manner, unfettered by political influence by elected officials…”

This purpose is worthy of broad support. But having carefully read the amendment, I have to wonder whether its intended goal is increasing the probity with which elected officials conduct the people’s business, or shifting the balance of power among those officials.

The amendment’s first provision would require “the Mayor, members of the Board of Aldermen and School Committee” to disclose any communication regarding a license or permit with anyone who has or wants that license or permit. That seems like a good idea. But historically, major real estate developers have enjoyed extensive communications with and guidance from the mayor well before they ever applied for a license or permit. Most aldermen and School Committee members learn of an application only after it’s made.

Next, aldermen and School Committee members would be required to disclose any communication with a city employee that takes place outside of a public meeting, regarding a license, permit, citation, sanction, or personnel matter. Presumably the reason why the mayor is exempted from this requirement is that city employees are all his staff.

Finally, the amendment would forbid any alderman or school committee member to “direct non elected City employees with respect to their official responsibilities.” This would prohibit something like an alderman asking Public Works to fill a pothole in front of a constituent’s home.

The city charter gives the Board of Aldermen only two real powers: budget approval and ordinance creation. For reasons worthy of a separate column, the budgetary power is illusory.

But for the two decades prior to the current Board’s incarnation, aldermen largely abandoned their role as legislators. They were content to serve as ombudsmen who ensured good communications between citizens and city staff, and effective delivery of city services. The proposed amendment would eliminate that role as well.

At one time the Board was assertive and independent. Between 1975 and 1985, for example, it legislated tax assessment reform, police department reform, zoning code reform, licensing reform, cable TV regulation, condo conversion regulation, Board of Health authority enhancement, rent control, requirement of a five-year capital improvement program, and creation of a personnel department. It depoliticized traffic and parking decisions, debated charter reform, commissioned a comprehensive study of our sewer system, and discussed bringing the Community Development budget under Aldermanic review.

Debates were vigorous. Votes were often 6-to-5. In a number of instances where the Mayor resisted Board initiatives, the Board prevailed.

The current Board has begun to reassume its constitutional role and reassert its independence through actions such as

  • Investigating the mayor’s unauthorized gift of $75,000 of payment-in-lieu-of-taxes funds to a local league that’s competing with Pop Warmer football;
  • Questioning the wisdom of buying monitoring devices and installing them on all city vehicles;
  • Resisting rezoning the Assembly Square IKEA site to accommodate a sprawling single-story supermarket; and
  • Drilling down on how a half-million-dollar request to plan that Square’s redevelopment would be used.

Call me cynical, but it seems to me that the ethics amendment would be more effective at restricting the domain of aldermen’s and school committee members’ authority than at promoting good government. If I’m cynical, I come by my cynicism honestly when I take other factors into account.

One of them is the dueling pay-to-play ordinances. Last year Board President Bill White submitted legislation that would prohibit vendors who obtain non-bid contracts and developers who obtain special permits from making campaign contributions in excess of $250. These supplicants would be required to disclose previous contributions to local officials.

Shortly thereafter, the mayor submitted a competing proposal that would exempt developers from these requirements, but include job seekers. Both proposals remain in committee.

Then I recall that in 2008, the Somerville Journal requested city officials’ ethics statements and discovered that the pertinent information had been blacked out. The mayor’s solicitors responded that Massachusetts law forbids disclosure of public officials’ addresses and phone numbers, although that was the least of what had been redacted. The city publishes elected officials’ contact information anyway.

And then there are the “Hosts” listed in the invitation to the mayor’s latest fundraiser, held last night in Beacon Hill’s luxury Liberty Hotel ballroom. They include

  • RJ Lyman who while at the Goodwin Procter law firm represented Federal Realty Investment Trust;
  • Robert Fishman, a Nutter McLennen partner who represented Assembly Square Limited Partners and now represents Federal Realty;
  • Goulston and Storrs attorney Doug Husid who represented IKEA’s Assembly Square development team;
  • Palmer and Dodge attorney Jim Shea who wrote the Assembly Square rezoning that allowed construction of Assembly Row and was judged by the Court to be illegal, but for which the city paid over a million dollars;
  • Tufts University’s President Emeritus Larry Bacow and its SVP and General Council Mary Jeka, giving new meaning to “payment in lieu of taxes;”
  • Frances Perullo and Paul Scappachio whose political consultancy, Sage Systems, advertises, “10 years of STRATEGY, INFLUENCE, RESULTS” (emphasis not added);
  • Michael Morris, principal of Beacon Strategies Group, lobbyists and political consultants who “specialize in executing complex and multi-faceted campaigns;”
  • Local real estate attorney Nick Ianuzzi;
  • Brady Realty Group co-owner Julie Phelan Brady; and
  • Natasha Perez who while working half-time for Gravestar Inc. and half-time as the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s Assistant Executive Director organized Assembly Square Limited Partners’ dirty tricks campaign and solicited massive donations from real estate professionals and political operatives, enabling Joe Curtatone to outspend Tony Lafuente by 390% during his first successful mayoral campaign.

Maybe I am being cynical. Maybe these high rollers are sincerely concerned about ‘Villens best interests. Maybe the proposed ethics ordinance is not crafted to reduce the influence of aldermen while allowing the mayor to wheel and deal with developers.

Or maybe he is the one who is being cynical.

I know that a number of his initiatives have provided genuine benefit to our city. And I know that this is not one of them.


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