Maura In The News

Zoning flap prompts policy review
City officials seek stronger stance on ethics issues

By Andrea Estes, Globe Staff | June 9, 2004

Three Boston city councilors yesterday suggested the city should sharpen its conflict-of-interest policies, following a Globe report that the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeal has been working for a developer who has frequent business before his board.

The three -- Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan, Charles Yancey, and Chuck Turner -- asked corporation counsel Merita Hopkins to explain how the city addresses potential conflicts with new city employees and members of boards and commissions.

The councilors want to know whether the appointees are required to tell the city about potential conflicts and whether they are instructed on conflict-of-interest laws after they are selected.

''Members of these boards and authorities have serious obligations, and ignorance of the law is not an excuse," Hennigan said.

''Public confidence is being undermined. The public needs to know that individuals who serve on our boards and authorities are acting in the public interest and not their own personal interest."

Hopkins wouldn't comment on the letter, saying she hadn't yet seen it.

Although state and county employees are required to file financial disclosure statements with the state Ethics Commission that detail their assets, sources of income, and outside work, city employees are not.

Yancey said he has tried several times to make city employees subject to the disclosure rules, but could not persuade other city councilors to back the change.

''I was shot down every time," he said. ''None of my colleagues wanted it. They thought it was an intrusion."

The councilors were reacting to the report in Monday's Globe that the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal chairman, Joseph Feaster, has been working for nearly five years for developer Joseph LaRosa, helping him acquire land and appearing at community meetings on his behalf. Feaster said he abstains from voting on LaRosa's projects that come before the board.

State ethics laws bar city officials from working for anyone other than the city on matters in which the city has an interest.

LaRosa, a home builder from Walpole, has won repeated approvals to bypass city zoning laws even though his projects are opposed by neighbors, community groups, city councilors, and the mayor's office. Neighbors have complained that his buildings are often squeezed onto small lots and are out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appointed Feaster to the Zoning Board in 1994, has asked him to withdraw from any involvement with the board until the state ethics commission decides whether his work for LaRosa violates the conflict-of-interest law.

Feaster did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment.

Feaster's colleagues on the board have defended him, saying he has never lobbied them to approve LaRosa's proposals. They also called him a great chairman who knows zoning law and listens to everyone who appears at the board's Tuesday hearings.

Michael Flaherty, City Council president, also praised Feaster yesterday.

''Joe is extremely competent and a good guy," said Flaherty.

If board members were not allowed to work on the side, Flaherty said, ''People would have to give up their career to serve one day a week."

The city is also investigating whether Feaster is violating a requirement that Zoning Board members live in the city. Feaster lists a three-family home he owns in Roxbury as his address on Boston voting and payroll records, but he also owns a house in Stoughton where his cars are registered and he's been active in town affairs.

According to the town's annual report, Feaster's wife, Phyllis, is a member of Stoughton's Landscape Review Committee, a board developers consult before cutting trees.

Menino said Monday that if city officials determine Feaster's primary residence is in Stoughton, he will be permanently removed from the board. He will also be asked to return thousands of dollars in tax breaks he has received on the Roxbury home.

For many years, Feaster has claimed a residential exemption on the Roxbury address -- $1,110.27, nearly half of his total tax bill this year. The city offers the exemptions on properties that are owner-occupied.

? Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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