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.

 

24 Responses to “Probity or power?”

  1. kevin crowley says:

    this is a hell of a good article; factual and sincere.
    why not propose a real ethics reform like the ethics law Capuano created which was dismantled by this administration and ( sad to say) the most political arm of the secretary of states office.

  2. ritepride says:

    Some good points but it is not really surprising to long time residents. The “All America City…Da Envelope Puhleeez”.

    It should be noted that a number of “All America City Award” recipients have had some of their city officials over the years indicted for bad conduct after receiving the award. So the award has lost it’s golden tone over the years.

    Then in MA we have the one party system, thus the citizens are held hostage under a dictatorship, not a government by the people, for the people.

  3. Sal says:

    Everyone knows that you need to follow the money. The high rollers you mention would always be invited to a fundraiser. But to host the fundraiser? A little too transparent for me.

  4. Bill,

    I believe you forgot to add Tricky Dick from WH law office to the list of attendees. I can’t imagine the pols/zba/developers favorite lawyer would not be there to celebrate their winfall of real estate mergers & aquisitions. What a surprise the very same lawyer in Everett who also hosted the fundraiser will be representing in court at some later date of “continuance” on the case of DV, or will he?

    What tangled webs indeed.

    I agree, aldermen should have more power than the mayor, as long as he or she is not doing the mayor’s bidding. It’s obvious he’s trying to gain total control over everything and everyone who works for him, that is not new, and all to further his own political and financial goals.

    I’m hoping the new aldermen are in line with their constituency and for the greater good of our city. Otherwise, it will be business as usual.

    They need to clean house at ISD, that is where most of the city permitting process originates, as well as restructuring zba, break political ties with “the university on the green at 02155″.

    If we wanted a dictator, we would elect one.

    There are too many fiefdoms, not enough in power willing to work together. If there is poor management at the top, nothing else works.

    A retired police officer and resident who was a close friend of my dad for over 50 years, shared it’s always about money, never about the local constituency–but added there are degrees of just how much they take from the residents of this city, and still it’s just the same as he has experienced.

  5. Jake says:

    It all comes down to keeping the money and power with the mayor and his flunkies. Alderman want services from DPW, like snow plowing, filling potholes, planting trees….Joe decides which Alderman he will reward. We saw this with Ward 1 and the money that he was pumping in through the former Alderman in city hall that controls DPW personnel in what turned out to be a failed attempt to keep their puppet from getting elected. Disclosures about permits??? See how much these Alderman make from simple permits like road races in the city. One campaign supporter makes over 200k a race (7500 runners@ $25-$40 each) and only pennies go back to the city. There is only room for one pig to eat at the city hall trough.

  6. krisKringle says:

    You’ve hit it outa the park again, Bill. This article is informative, detailed, specific. Hope it further energizes the current alds. to develop the muscle to forthrightly drill down and fact-find regarding who’s really benefitting from the investments and fancy-sounding initiatives fashioned by Curtatone’s seemingly unstoppable Rhetoric & Fantasy machine.

  7. LoL says:

    “I’m hoping the new aldermen are in line with their constituency and for the greater good of our city.”

    don’t bet on it. these goons are in it for themselves and THEIR constituency. supposedly the budget will be their coming out party but they have nothing more after that. a whole lot of buzz over absolutely nothing if you ask me.

  8. missing says:

    What about the current alderman that got an organization he once served as president of $500,000? Why isn’t that piece of 411 included in this list?

  9. Somerbreeze says:

    While citizens get treated to the Emperor Joe Bread & Circus All-American Ain’t-We-Got-Fun(ded) Whiz-Bang Extravaganzas–

    Emperor Joe is Opening Sesame Mucho to the long line of high-rollers, salivating developers and power-brokers, while the rest of us genuflect for crumbs at His Exalted Throne…

    Hubba hubba, ding ding! Emperor Joe’s got everything!

  10. Pixie Pocahontas says:

    Bill,

    How ethical is it to hire two former aldermen for $100k jobs? Doesn’t verizon provide enough retirement funds?

    I take issue with one who was hired as an HR Director, (while someone wrote) they are planning to hire all four, three who have stepped down for reasons unclear.

    What of the former Ward 5 alderman who has been involved with questionable rezoning condo building, personal alliances with member of ZBA? He should never be allowed to hold a salaried or contractual job in our city ever again. He has serious character flaws and would only bring back much more of what we are trying to get rid of –undermining the integrity of aldermen who do good work. We should never allow a provision to let them get back in the game. No second chances.

    When public trust is broken, they deserve nothing more than to be shunned and exiled. Let it send a message to everyone who wants to cross that line. Most of us who lived here long enough understand not everything can change, but when they triple our taxes, raise fees and water bills, raise assessed values on a whim, provide services to family and friends, forsaking all other residents–something must be done.

    I would also like to see full transparency of financials, how much nepotism is entrenched in our city and how much real estate (include market values) has been acquired by town officials . How many absentee landlords make political contributions, while retaining residential exemption status? How many homes have been swindled by lawyers and their political friends? When it’s all out in the open, the people will decide.

  11. jasper says:

    Who can blame anyone–former alderman or not– for accepting a position with the city?!!? Even the most progressive of the PDS would take one. Should one of those weirdos be elected as mayor, it wouldn’t be any different. They would hire their friends. They would employ their family members. Gimme a break with the bs.

  12. Pixie Pocahontas says:

    Lol.

    I believe you’re right about those alliances at city hall, however, I wouldn’t draw premature conclusions on the newbies. They are independent thinkers who bring in new ideas we desperately need, not part of the just-us crowd who are obviously not providing full support to the constituency, but instead filling their pockets.

    We are not talking about making a few extra bucks on side jobs, their are too many abusers going on with regard to how the administration is spending taxpayer money. How can we trust a former alderman as HR director? How does no one have a problem with this? Do we have body of overseers who will make sure “equal opportunity employer”, is maintained?
    When jobs are only given to family and friends, creates another level of abuses. Hiring based on diversity ensures those abuses don’t happen since it’s not jus run by all-in-the-family.

    The reason they keep this a mostly $transient community, is because only a few of us locals who are left, who know what’s going on are in the minority.
    If this was a rich suburban town like Andover, Winchester or Cambridge, this administration would be run out of town. Because of who we are as working class, focused on our own lives, families and friends — is why they have been able to maintain their power. If we can find a way to ban together, I believe this city can be reshaped into a place that benefits everyone who wants to live here. But we cannot achieve that goal with the same shady business that’s been going on behind our backs. We all deserve better. For all the many years our parents worked to keep what they achieved, we are doing the same, but it’s much harder now because they’ve made this place a housing casino.

  13. somdog says:

    Soon we will see what our Alderman are made up when the budget comes before them. Will they ask why their former Board members are being given these jobs without even a real interview process taking place? Will they question why a recent police officer was given what amounted to about 125k payout so he would retire and Joe could promote his buddy before the promotion list expired? How about DPW and the theft of overtime and city resources that were covered up? BOA members, Traffic Director, City Engineer, Police Chief, Chief of Staff, Library Director and others all packing up and leaving? More like getting out before the hammer falls.

  14. smarter says:

    I’m not falling for this shelton. just another attempt at throwing jabs so one of your candidates can run for mayor. please do something more creative then this and tell brociner the same. two kooks.

  15. Johnnie Jazz says:

    Pix, that request for transparency — there aren’t enough trees to print that list. We all have seen it since we were kids, but in days gone by we all did pretty well and a lot of city employees lived here. So we sort of ignored all the corrupt city-connected pigs feeding at the trough. We shook our heads and laughed, but everyone was doing ok.

    The problem now is there is no more middle class here in the city, but the piggys (most of whom do not live here) haven’t come up for air from the feeding trough. They just don’t care – take, take and take more.

    It’s going to take an outsider (most likely federal – not even state level) to come in and demand that transparency. Then – maybe – we will get a look at some of the dirty laundry. Even though I always vote democrat (there is no other party here in MA and Somerville) I certainly wish the powers that be within the party weren’t so corruptible and predictable. I literally hold my nose when I vote now.

  16. brave says:

    I may not make a ton of friends with this statement but it seems that Bill Roche ruined it for everyone. Would people have a problem if he didn’t resign and then take a job? I get Desmond and Bastardi because they either lost or didn’t run for reelection but I feel its the Roche thing that everyone has a problem with including me. The hiring practices at city hall may be predictable but are they illegal? Unethical yes but not illegal.

  17. Somerbreeze says:

    Ah, the Joey Cakes stooges and trolls are chiming in–isn’t that SPECIAL?

  18. Pixie Pocahontas says:

    We need a balance of BOA who will ensure that ethics are maintained, work together representing all constituents on pertinent issues we are facing such as the extreme shortage of affordable housing.

    Our working families, elderly and singles cannot make enough to live in the city. It is our responsibility to preserve our city as it is today to maintain a diverse community.

    I would rather see a varied group making important decisions which impact residents, rather than where the next empty mausoleum–including $17k retail space, will be —are you kidding?

    Do you really want to live in East Coast Palto Alto?

    The way I see it, we are quickly becoming a polarized community as the wealthy and their power brokers keep Pac-Man’ing our real estate.

    There are different angles and lenses to view our city. I’d rather it be a wide lens of varied landscape than a narrow exposure.

    Don’t let your prejudices cloud the greater goals.

    We have bad boys who run this city–you know it and I know it.
    If the progressive movement makes great strides, you can blame the last administration. They have cronied their way to the bottom on a bobsled of greed, self indulgence, trickery, deception and ultimate betrayal. Don’t feel sorry for them, as they have been laughing all the way to the bank for years while galvanizing this town into chaos. I predict they have already assessed their next homestead and it won’t fall into the “02143-4-5″, Zip, rather the much greener pastures x 3,4,5. Once a Somerville native, always a Somerville native, doesn’t matter where you move, how much money you gain, roots remain the same.

  19. Pixie Pocahontas says:

    brave,

    When you have lawyers running the town, what would anything they do, ever be considered illegal?

    I guess a job for a former alderman who is already collecting a pension from Verizon wouldn’t be an issue if we had a few billion in commercial real estate revenue paying all the $100 k salaries they keep doling out. Somewhat reminiscent of the senate president who triple dipped his way to 3 pensions.

    Don’t forget our tripled tax hikes this year as a reward for being such great taxpayers.

  20. Pixie Pocahontas says:

    Jazz,

    I hear ya!

    The tragedy is we’ve become surrogate enablers to a bunch of spoiled freeloaders. There should be no endless cash flow from struggling residents and taxpayers. Having grown up with some, it baffles the mind the degree of apathy and narcissism which perverts their judgement.

    Could we at the very least not hire any female entertainment as salaried positions? I really could care less, but seriously, do we also pay for the dry cleaning?

  21. Boss Jonny says:

    Jeebus, Pixie, are you logorrheic? How can you talk about feeloaders, Pixie!? You freeloaded all your life off your poor parents. And now you keep trying to make them feel guilty because you want to squeeze more out of them so you can go have fun in California! Such hypocrisy! The new generations have no shame! God help us all.

  22. Pixie Pocahontas says:

    Boss Jonny,

    I don’t have to defend my credibility to you or anyone else–my reputation speaks for itself. We are judged by our actions and by the way we treat others. This also applies to those who run our city.

    Over the years, this administration has proven to be unworthy to hold their positions. I have a right to my opinion as anyone else. If you stand on a street corner and take a survey, you would find the majority of working class residents are just as disappointed with the way our town has been managed.

    I’m inclined to believe this behavior is based on some personal vendetta that we locals who are not part of the inner circle are being driven from our homes. Most of it is greed, but it’s also something else.

    My family members have lived in this city since 1930, the north end, Hanover Street and North Margin prior to that time and still remain. We are northern Italians, dad was a lifetime member of the Dante Club and St. Anthony’s Church. He had many friends including one who went by the name “chipper”. They took care of their families, friends and neighbors during the depression, sending packages to their families in WWII Italy so they would survive disease and famine. I continue to have extended family who are related to many of the same families that settled in Somerville.
    I continue to carry on my family legacy by practicing the same. I will continue to defend and support my local friends and new friends who wish to remain in an affordable city. We are fed up with the extortionists who believe they are worthy of their jobs. Everyone of them is expendable and they know it. That is why they are bullies and all bullies need to be put in there place. Everyone who knows me, knows I am a person of integrity and compassion. This administration has a lot to answer to for all the grief they cause. One day I hope there will be a resolution. But for now, the best we can do is question and continue to remain persistent.

  23. Boss Jonny says:

    Believe me, Pixie, I knew your dad. The main issue about your reputation is that people like you tend to mooch off other people, while at the same time being jealous when other people do well for themselves!

  24. Pixie Pocahontas says:

    Are you a member of the Resmini, Boiardi, Solari family?

    Dad died when I was a child, I cared for mom on my own while raising a family, going to college and working full time. There where 10 family members who started their own families, owned homes in Somerville since the 1940′s. We’ve all paid taxes since we were teenagers. I come from a family who spent their lives as industrious, religious and charitable people.

    How you interpret mooching and being jealous, from who I am and what I endured is not only grossly inaccurate but an insult to my dad who you claim to have known. I assure you, he was a man who would never keep company with someone like that, he was a hero to his entire family both here and in N. Italy because of his unwavering courage, honor and determination to save them from poverty and death.

    The difference between the men of that era and what we have now is they never turned their backs on friends or family for greed. That’s the Somerville I miss. I don’t know where I live anymore, but it’s certainly does not resemble the city I once loved.

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