By Seth Daniel
As the Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) begins the process of delivering money to deserving non-profits once again, a group of Charlestown residents will be watching the process carefully and assured that their 2013 lawsuit against the former mitigation process will have made a difference in the way the process works and what they term as “disparaging” treatment of some residents in the past.
Speaking as plaintiffs and for the plaintiffs, Kara Segal-Ryan and Melissa Brennan of Charlestown recently spoke about their suit – which was decided in 2014 – and how it will now apply to the CNC as they distribute funds once again. Previously, for 10 years, the CNC distributed funds to local organizations in partnership with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) – funds that were garnered via mitigation for the Big Dig. That 10-year distribution ended a few years ago, but the lawsuit in 2013 raised some serious questions about that process and whether or not the CNC was a public body and its members public officials who were required to follow all of the public disclosure rules within the law.
In the end, Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat sided with the plaintiffs in declaring the CNC a public body on Oct. 23, 2014.
“The CNC Development Committee, and by implication the CNC, is a public body within the meaning and intent of the Open Meeting Law…and shall hereafter copy with and abide by all of the provisions and requirements of that law in the conduct of its business,” read the judge’s decision.
Brennan said that had very big implications for the CNC, the public and the distribution of local money.
“We want accountability in the process in Charlestown and citywide,” said Brennan. “If a group like this is going to distribute public funds, they need to be subject to open meeting laws, ethics laws and public disclosures so that everything is out in the open. Otherwise, they shouldn’t distribute the funds…Open Meeting Law means there will be some decorum at the meeting where in the past there has been a lack of it. You can’t swear at people or tell them to get out or talk over people. You have to give people their time and let them talk in what is a community process. As long as money is being distributed in a fair and open process, then our lawsuit did it’s job. We wanted this process to follow the law to give out money.
The big thing is there is accountability and someone is in charge of them,” she continued. “The AG’s Office can now take a complaint. Before, there was no avenue for that. When someone got thrown out of a meeting, they had nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. This is transparent and meaningful. The spotlight is on them now.”
Rebecca Kaiser, of Spaulding Rehabilitation’s community relations team (and a Charlestown resident), has been working closely with the new process that will distribute a $500,000 gift from Spaulding to the community over the next five years.
She said the process is different and has been rewarding and open.
“I feel like we had a really open and transparent process with a lot of input from the community and Spaulding in partnership,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of things to say about the past process, but it doesn’t sound like the BRA was a partner that attended every review meeting and was an active participant and partner in the process.”
She elaborated in saying the application form for non-profits was different, and that members of the CNC had to disclose any potential conflicts of interest – something that wasn’t done in the past and was a major bone of contention within the 2013 lawsuit.
“Every single member of the review committee filled out those forms to disclose a conflict or an affiliation,” she said. “Two members did not vote on applications they had a perceived conflict of interest on.”
She also stressed this process is not done through the BRA as the Big Dig money was, but rather through a public health process and a determination of needs study with the community.
Brennan and Segal-Ryan, who are attorneys but did not represent plaintiffs in the lawsuit, referred to numerous affidavits given within the suit regarding conduct at meetings prior to the suit. Those affidavits were given by residents like Patricia Kelley, Alfred Duggan, Donna Mainey, and Kelly Tucker – among others.
In the suit and the affidavits, some neighbors indicate that the CNC’s approval of the Bridgeview housing development by the Life Focus Center in 2013 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After 40 to 50 people had come out against the housing project – which is now being built – the CNC originally denied it and the extension of an agreement for the property. However, later, that was changed. Neighbors within the suit felt they had nowhere to go to challenge the ruling.
Brennan said that now they do, whether it be on something like that or on the distribution of money.
“Historically, Charlestown always gets shortchanged, whether someone comes in and does it to us or we do it to ourselves,” she said. “This lawsuit was about open meeting laws, being listened to and not told to get out of a meeting or being ignored. It was about being part of the process. So many people were tired of going to meetings and leaving disappointed. They had nowhere to turn. Because of this lawsuit, the open meeting law now governs the Council and now if people aren’t heard, they can go to the Attorney General’s Office and they can lodge a complaint. There is a process for them now where before there wasn’t.”
She added that many have indicated the lawsuit and their recent follow-up in regards to the Spaulding money is about sour grapes and/or taking away money from non-profits. Brennan and Segal-Ryan said it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, they support all of the non-profits and want to make sure all of them get a fair shake in the distribution process, not just a favored few.
“Anyone who says we’re trying to take money away from the local non-profits, well, that’s like the Duke lacrosse players, it’s ‘fantastic lies,’” Brennan said. “Our effort centers on what they have been doing for years – doing things the way they saw fit rather than how everyone saw fit through a community process.”
Segal-Ryan said a lot of the case revolved around previous cases in South Boston and a case in Jamaica Plain. That, combined with the decision in Charlestown in 2014, brings up a big question for Boston City Hall in how it wants to handle such Neighborhood Council organizations that started in the 1980s and continue in various and fragmented forms all throughout the City.
“This is pretty interesting because if this applies to the Charlestown Neighborhood Council, it applies to all of these bodies in the city,” Segal-Ryan said. “This shows that City Hall needs to be careful. It will be interesting to see where they go with it.”