Maura In The News

Smokescreenino
While Mayor and Dailies Focus on Ticketgate, the City Continues to Get Fleeced
by Paul McMorrow

City councilors angrily demanded satisfaction. Menino spokesman Seth Gitell scrambled to mumble a few words in defense of his boss. And the city's dailies' reporters frothed at the mouth in their zeal to crucify ... a few young city employees who had fixed $300 worth of parking tickets?

When word broke of the scandal last week, Menino fired two Boston Transportation Department (BTD) hearing officers, Hayley Snaddon and Karen Rencus, for fixing dozens of parking tickets for their friends in city government. Menino also suspended the seven city employees who had employed Rencus and Snaddon's illicit services, the two most notable being the mayor's campaign manager, Michael Kelley, who had 13 tickets cleared, and Peter O'Sullivan, director of the city's fascist street furniture program, the holder of 15 parking tickets.

But the Globe didn't stop with Kelley and O'Sullivan; they dug and they dug, and on Thursday, they revealed to the world some of the other scurrilous ne'er-do-wells caught up in the burgeoning scandal: the Boston Redevelopment Authority's (BRA) Anthony Gilardi (two tickets totaling $20) and Lara Valentine (one ticket for $45); and Jeffrey Drago (two tickets for $115) and Allison Rogers (three for $131) of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services. For those keeping score at home, that's days of digging, frothing and raging, ultimately uncovering $311 worth of tickets.

At-Large City Councilors Maura Hennigan and Felix Arroyo have filed a motion demanding that Menino disclose the details of his administration's investigation into the scandal, in order to determine the breadth and depth of corruption within the BTD. Said Arroyo, I don't believe that anything that happens in public service shouldn't be public knowledge. The Council, as a representative body, representing the public, has a responsibility to understand if public trust has been violated. Was this the end of it? There's a trust that these people have violated: the public trust.

Hennigan added, Even when I get a ticket, I have to go to a hearing. Whatever process we have in here should work for everyone.

Arroyo and Hennigan, who legitimately point out that any corruption in city government cannot be tolerated, hope to use the public disclosure they're urging to set up new processes of review and transparency for the BTD. But while stoning a handful of minor offenders, the local media has allowed corruption on a drastically wider scale to go largely unchecked.

Despite a week spent chasing after a few hundred dollars in parking tickets, the dailies have made only the briefest mention of Arroyo's wider crusade against the agency that bilks millions of dollars every year from the city: the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Arroyo calls the BRA both a white elephant and a sacred cow. In 1960, the city merged its planning and redevelopment arms into a single quasi-government, quasi-independent authority, the BRA. It operates outside of the city's budget (being funded wholly through fees it collects from developers) and oftentimes outside of any legal or public oversight, even by the City Council. Councilors have regularly complained that the BRA keeps its budget and bank account balances secret. Even Menino has no real formal legal check over the BRA's actions, save his appointment of the organization's leaders. And the common vision he shares with them results less from legal oversight and more from shared allegiances to developers.

The BRA owns 450 parcels of land on 250 acres throughout the city, all of which is tax-exempt. It makes no payments in lieu of taxes on its land, as the MBTA and tax-exempt universities do. Critics estimate that the BRA's land values total somewhere around $2 billion, but because nobody assesses its land, no one can be sure.

In addition to operating outside the realm of legal and public accountability, and hoarding its bloated coffers out of the city's reach, the BRA has made standard practice out of promoting the construction of favored developments at the public's expense. In one famous example a few years back, the BRA acted on the behalf of developer Henry Kara, a friend of the mayor. The BRA bought, combined and un-zoned a package of attractive downtown parcels, then sold those parcels to Kara for $2.5 million. Kara promptly sold the property to Emerson College for more than $14 million. Emerson used the rezoned property to construct a new dorm (the previous zoning would have precluded such construction); the BRA collected a $2 million anti-speculation fee (kickback), which was deposited into its own insulated account; and Kara turned a $10 million profit. In addition to $14 million going into the pockets of a private developer, not the city, the land parcels, which had been slated for tax-generation purposes, were now owned by a tax-exempt entity, Emerson College.

The BRA has repeatedly acted as a broker for people like Kara, generating private wealth at the public's expense. It's also prone to using its urban renewal mission to accord tax breaks to favored developers and corporations.

The city's dailies have expressed sporadic, momentary outrage at the BRA's transgressions but have certainly never mounted a sustained campaign against it with anything resembling the ferocity they leveled against Gilardi, Valentine, Drago and Rogers. Arroyo's home-rule petition to strip the BRA of its autonomy received only a passing mention. Which makes the outrage over a few hundred dollars in fixed parking tickets seem misdirected: a lot like reprimanding a bank employee for stealing a couple pens, while bandits make off with the vault.

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