The Boston Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) has definitely seen better days.
The fallout from the John Lynch alleged bribery scandal has trickled down to the ZBA itself and now Mayor Martin Walsh is calling for an investigation into the board as Mayoral Assistant Buddy Christopher (former ISD Director) has taken a leave from his job on Friday and ZBA member Craig Galvin resigned over the weekend.
Lynch, the city’s Director of Real Estate, pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting $50,000 from a developer to sway members of the ZBA on a vote on Aug. 30. On Monday, Mayor Martin Walsh said he was ready to make immediate changes if necessary and embark on an independent review.
“One of my first actions as Mayor was to streamline the zoning process and change the BRA into a planning agency that, for the first time, focuses on the community,” he said. “I’ve worked to level the playing field in every aspect of development and I’ve made clear that if we find anything that allows someone to put their thumb on the scale that I will make immediate changes. There are timely projects before the board right now that will unfairly and negatively impact residents who have been waiting to improve their homes if they are not addressed. I’ve asked for an independent and comprehensive review and I am fully committed to overhauling the Zoning Board of Appeal.”
Councilor Lydia Edwards has been at the center of a ZBA dust-up since early summer, criticizing in open meetings the re-appointment of Galvin – a Dorchester realtor and developer. She and Councilor Michelle Wu have held up that re-appointment and the appointment of new members due to a controversial decision on a marijuana dispensary in East Boston – among many other general concerns about the ZBA’s activities and decisions.
In response to the recent developments this week, Edwards said planning, zoning and development review are critical city functions that impact the lives of residents across the city.
“Cases like these emphasize the need for transparent public oversight and clear standards that are actually followed,” she said. “This is an opportunity to examine how we do business, and also gives us a reason to examine the structure of zoning authority in the city. We should also see this examination as a chance to reinstall trust in the ZBA. Many people have given up on it and believe it doesn’t even try to apply zoning standards.”
Since his plea, the turmoil has extended to Galvin and Christopher, who has been serving as an advisor to Walsh in trying to tackle the opioid epidemic in Boston’s South End. Christopher, an architect by trade, had done work on the building that Lynch had allegedly taken a bribe to advance within the ZBA. He said he felt it was best to step aside during the review given that involvement.
“The private sector work I performed that qualified me for the work I’ve done for the city, and the connections I made then, disqualify me from participating now in the inquiry the Mayor has requested,” he said. “Rather than recuse myself, I am simply taking a temporary leave of absence so as not to interfere with the inquiry.”
As the scandal unfolded this week Walsh announced his administration has hired the former head of the public corruption unit inside the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Brian Kelly, to conduct an independent review of the scandal.
Walsh also called for a comprehensive review of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) and related processes, in order to ensure that best practices, including strong internal protocols and policies, are in place to best serve applicants in a way that is transparent and accountable to the public.
“It continues to be a top priority to get to the bottom of what happened here,” said a mayoral spokesperson over the weekend. “We anticipate having our questions answered through Attorney Brian Kelly’s review, and Mayor Walsh is taking the action needed until we know more.”
Attorney Kelly has reached out to each member of the ZBA to schedule interviews, City officials said, and will also be reaching out to any others involved in this specific project as necessary to get to the bottom of what happened.
Walsh said the review will draw upon expertise in all facets of zoning to review best practices in the field, and inform any opportunities moving forward for how to institute even stronger operational controls and accountability at the ZBA.
“Boston is a city that is booming with economic development, from new companies moving to our city and the creation of housing being at an all-time high-record,” said Mayor Walsh. “The pace of our growth is unparalleled to any other time in our city’s history, which is a tremendous economic boon for our city, but also brings its own set of challenges. Through this review, I want to make sure that our agencies and staff are best equipped with the knowledge, tools and training they need to do their jobs effectively and to the standard of which they are held.”
Walsh has asked Sullivan & Worcester LLP to conduct this comprehensive review beginning with the rules and regulations in place that dictate how the ZBA conducts business on behalf of the residents of Boston, and those with matters before the board.
City officials said the ZBA will continue on with their regular meetings in the interim, and in fact, had a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 10. They said that postponing the meetings would be a hardship for many in the city as the ZBA handles about 68 cases per week in two meetings a month. Aside from building projects, some of the matters that would be held up without meetings, the City said, include things like a driveway or a family home expansion.
Seth Daniel contributed to this story.