Mayor starts overhaul of ZBA

In the wake of the scandal that rocked the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) last year, District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards called for an overhaul of the city’s zoning board.

The John Lynch-bribing scandal trickled down to the ZBA and led Mayor Martin Walsh to call for an investigation into the board.

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.

Since his plea, ZBA Board Member Craig Galvin has resigned and former ISD Commissioner Buddy Christopher, who has been serving as an advisor to Mayor Martin Walsh, also jumped ship from City Hall. Reports then surfaced that Galvin’s real estate company may have benefited from votes he took approving projects that he and his wife later sold.

As the scandal unfolded Edwards filed legislation to modernize and reform ZBA.

On Monday, Walsh signed an Executive Order to establish new, rigorous ethical standards for the ZBA and institute strong policies and procedures that will bring a significantly increased level of transparency, accountability and integrity to the board of appeals.

These important changes are informed, in part, by the findings of the Sullivan & Worcester report and initiate both immediate and long-term changes needed to ensure that best practices, strong internal protocols and policies are in place at the ZBA.

“The ZBA plays a critical role for our city, but to be effective in this role and maintain public confidence, the board must operate at the highest standards of professionalism, ethics, and accessibility,” said Walsh. “The changes we are making today will go further than state ethics laws that currently govern the board and its members, modernize the function of the board to make it more accessible and transparent to the public, and I will file legislation to change the membership of the board to ensure that it is reflective of our neighborhoods and their concerns. I want to assure the residents of Boston that they can have confidence in the ZBA and that we will continue to protect what we love about our neighborhoods as we grow and evolve as a city.”

Through these reforms, Walsh is spearheading the changes necessary to strengthen public confidence in the board, improve their functions and efficiencies, and create a more understandable and transparent process. The changes will include strict standards around conflict of interest, financial and ethical disclosures for both board members and certain applicants seeking project approvals, rules governing business dealings before, during and after projects are considered and approved, enhanced ethical training for board members, as well as technological improvements to bring greater access to the board and its process for the public.

According to the Mayor’s Office the Executive Order bolsters the ethics and transparency expectations of its board members by implementing new disclosure requirements, prohibiting members from participating in any project in which they have an interest and prohibiting members from having any subsequent business dealings with any project on which they voted. In addition, the order establishes new standards for board members, requiring each member to submit annual statements of financial interest and undergo comprehensive ethics training.

Because changes to the ZBA require state approval, Walsh said he will continue to work with Edwards to craft a home rule petition to the Massachusetts state legislature to change the composition of the board to bring added perspective and expertise.

 “It is critical that residents trust and have full and indiscriminate access to 21st century government. Today’s executive order takes critical steps by modernizing the Zoning Board of Appeal, promoting transparency and strengthening ethical standards,” said Edwards. “As the council moves forward with legislation regarding the Board of Appeal, I look forward to continued partnership with Mayor Walsh.”  

The Executive Order by Walsh includes many of the overhauls Edwards called for last year.

According to the order, records would be available electronically and in person at City Hall and 1010 Mass Ave., no later than seven days following a hearing. Notices of hearings would be posted and delivered electronically twenty days in advance. Contact information for the board would be posted electronically.

Appeals could be filed electronically, in person at City Hall or at 1010 Mass Ave.

As part of the Mayor’s commitment to making the ZBA more accessible to residents, the Executive Order calls for the designation of an ombudsperson to notify the public of their rights during and outside of ZBA meetings and guide residents or appellants through basic procedural steps of appeal. In addition, the Board will be required to work with the Mayor’s Office of Language and Communications Access to ensure the provision of translation services is available to residents.

The reforms announced today build on steps that Mayor Walsh took immediately after learning about the allegations of bribery that are currently under investigation, which include ordering a comprehensive, independent review of the practices and procedures of the Zoning Board of Appeal, and a separate review conducted by Attorney Brian Kelly to focus on allegations regarding a specific project.

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