Tuesday, March 08, 2016

In January I contacted a local news organization to write an article on their behalf about how the City of Boston was disposing of Winthrop Square Garage downtown. They readily agreed and I spent a few weeks doing research and interviews. This is the story that I wrote: WINTHROP GARAGE The Citizens of Boston own Winthrop Square Garage downtown and it is likely the most valuable asset that will be disposed of on their behalf during Mayor Walsh’s inaugural term. Recently the City Council on request of the Mayor voted to give the property away to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) with an open ended agreement that doesn’t specify the time of performance, the fees to be charged, or the amount the Citizens are to receive. The parcel is currently a shuttered parking garage, but it is extremely valuable because a large tower of up to 700 feet is envisioned for the property. Estimates for the value of the property given at City Hall testimony last summer run from a low of 10 to 15 million given by the head of the BRA, to 100 million in the Boston Herald to a high of 200 million given by citizen activist Shirley Kressel. The City has it currently assessed at 30 million dollars. Land (not including the building) for similar towers such as the Hancock Tower is assessed by the City at roughly 150 million dollars. The Mayor ran on a platform of reforming the independent BRA. Once elected he had an independent audit done which found poor fiscal controls and record keeping at the agency among other issues. Regardless, the administration came to the conclusion approximately a year ago that no City agency had the expertise to sell this parcel of land and so gave the property to the BRA without up front renumeration to the Citizens of Boston. The BRA then started soliciting proposals and eight major developers expressed interest. Because the BRA is an independent agency it is not subject to the same competitive bidding laws that the City of Boston would be if they sell the property. These laws spell out how the property must be sold and the proceeds given to the Citizens. The BRA may sell or lease the land to whomever they choose whether a high bidder or low bidder in a possibly politicized process and extract whatever fees and costs they want, for as long as they want before turning over the remainder to the Citizens. After the administration turned the property over to the BRA, activist Shirley Kressel wrote a letter to the City pointing out that there is a legal process that must be followed before property owned by the Citizens of Boston, especially one that might be worth almost a billion dollars when finished, is disposed. Most importantly the Boston City Council, whose main function under the Boston City Charter is to be a fiscal watchdog on the executive branch, must vote to approve a transfer of the property. So last summer the Mayor sent an order to the City Council to have the transfer voted on and approved. There was a Boston City Council hearing in June where the City testified that it didn’t have the capability to sell the property, the head of the BRA testified that they could and should sell the property that they thought was worth 10 to 15 million dollars, and Mrs. Kressel and others testified that the property is worth much more than that and that the City should retain ownership of the property and control of the assets. At most, it was suggested to use the BRA as an agent to sell the property on behalf of the Citizens of Boston instead of giving the BRA ownership and control of the parcel. In August the City Council Committee on Economic Development chaired by Councilor LaMattina held a publicly noticed working session to discuss the matter. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was put together for this meeting. The contract (MOU) essentially states that the City will give ownership to the BRA, the BRA can do whatever they feel is best for the property, structuring the lease or sale of the property however they want, they can take any and all fees that they want, there is no timeline for them to do what they want, and when they are done with this process they will turn over whatever net proceeds there are to the City’s General Fund, where the money can be used for any purpose. The councilors had a number of questions for the BRA such as how much are their fees going to be, how much is the property worth, etc. The BRA explained to the Committee that the BRA thought it best that they do NOT do an estimate of how much the property will be worth because if the City Council and the Citizens of Boston knew how much their property was worth before they gave it away to the BRA it might affect the bidding for the property by the 8 major developers. The working session ended with the Committee requesting the BRA provide the councilors with information and answers to questions. Over the next few months, through the November election, apparently unbeknownst to other City Councilors and the members of his Economic Development Committee, Councilor LaMattina met with the administration and BRA lawyers and revised the MOU. The outline remained the same: The BRA would be given ownership and control of the property, they could do whatever they want, for as long as they want, take whatever fees they deem necessary, and when they are done they will turn over whatever is left to the Citizens of Boston General Fund. The changed MOU “identified, tasks, costs and expenses that will likely be necessary”. These include site work, structural investigation, surveys, demolition, environmental remediation, utility work, and much office work and analysis. In other words, this-quasi governmental agency that is not in the building business, will act as the initial general contractor to prepare the property for further development. All of their costs and management fees would come out of the net proceeds of the property given to the Citizens of Boston. None of the contracts they award nor people they hire are subject to state and city procurement laws. Councilor LaMattina checked with City Council President Linehan, whose district the property is in, to see if he was okay with the MOU and he got the approval for the deal from Councilor Linehan. Allegedly no one else on his Committee knew about his negotiations with the City and the BRA, as there were concerns that if a majority of the members of his Committee were involved with the negotiations they would have to be done in public in accordance with the Open Meeting Law where other councilors and the Citizens of Boston could scrutinize the deal. The Committee on Economic Development never held another public meeting or discussion on the topic. On either the afternoon of December 8, 2015 or the morning of December 9, 2015 each City Councilor received a thick packet of documents and the revised MOU. The packet did not contain an estimate of the value of the property or any estimate of the BRA’s fees as requested by numerous councilors. The City Council held their weekly meeting Wednesday December 9 at noon. No public notice was given so that the Citizens of Boston would know that this valuable asset was going to be voted away that day. The MOU was never publicly distributed nor put on the City’s website where the Citizens of Boston could see the deal they were entering into through their legislative agents the Boston City Council. Near the end of the meeting, the next to last one of the 2015 year, after the election was over, the matter was brought up from the “Green Sheets” for consideration. The “Green Sheets” is a Boston City Council parliamentary device used to bring up any matter from the previous year, at any time, without public notice that it would be brought up at that particular meeting. This is done under the auspices that if the matter had been brought up sometime in the last year, then the public has been properly notified, and they should know that the City Council might vote on it sometime in the future. Even, such as in this case, if it had not been voted out of Committee, had been negotiated in private with the BRA and the executive branch, and the document being voted on had been changed from the document seen in public four months prior at the working session. Councilors LaMattina and Linehan spoke in favor of the deal and talked of how they held the BRA’s “feet to the fire” with this deal which was much better than other deals they had negotiated before. Despite the fact that the other Councilors had just received the packet and the revised MOU within the last few working hours, that the questions they had sought answers for in the August working session were not answered, there was not a single question about the deal asked by any of the 13 City Councilors. All of the male caucasian councilors plus Michelle Wu voted for it, all of the African American councilors voted against it. The vote was 10 - 3 and the property was voted away. Or was it? Activist Shirley Kressel who was involved in the largest winning Open Meeting Law lawsuit against the Boston City Council (full disclosure: I was one of the three plaintiffs in that case) was paying attention to these machinations and filed an Open Meeting complaint with the Boston City Council asserting that the process did not follow state law. As this article is being written the Council and Mrs. Kressel are in legal proceedings about how to rectify the situation. Over a two week period I (on behalf of the news organization) attempted to contact all 11 City Councilors who are on the body this year who were there last year. (There are 2 new City Councilors this year). We requested in writing: "Who negotiated the deal?”, "How much they thought the parcel was worth?”, "When they thought the Citizens of Boston would get their money from the deal?”, and "How much they thought the fees from the BRA would be?” Eight councilors declined to respond, one told us off the record a value of $30 to $70 million dollars, another council staffer told us off the record the process was ‘Very corrupt’. Only Councilors Wu who voted for the deal and Councilor Tito Jackson who voted against the deal responded. Councilor Wu indicated she did not know about the negotiations, would not offer her opinion of the value of the property, did not know what the BRA fees would be, or when the money would be realized. She did write that she cares about affordable housing and looks forward to having this money go towards that much needed endeavor. Councilor Jackson said he thought the property was worth $30 to $70 million dollars and voted against the deal saying: “I was not presented with enough information to vote in the affirmative. There are several process and procedures questions I have. I want to make sure the citizens get the most value for the property." No one at City Hall would tell me (or the news organization) who was involved with the negotiations. The Councilors either did not know or refused to answer. The BRA’s press agent said that they only provided lawyers to the executive branch to help in the negotiations and referred us to the Mayor’s press office. As of the deadline for this article no one in the Mayor’s office responded to our question. It was only from the legal proceedings of the Open Meeting Law complaint of Shirley Kressel that we were able to discover that only Councilors LaMattina and Linehan negotiated this deal in secret. The deal that not one of the other City Councilors had a question about on behalf of the Citizens of Boston. After I sent this article in to my editor, they told me it was "good work" and that they would publish it the following week after they did some fact checking. That was 3 weeks ago. Since that time they have not responded to my numerous phone calls or emails. That is why I am sending it to UniversalHub as I think it is an important story for the citizens to know about. Especially on a day when hundreds of students took the time to protest against cuts to their education funding. My sources now tell me that the BRA is planning on taking this property by eminent domain from the City of Boston in the very near future. They allegedly are going to take it for the reason of clearing up the title, even though the City of Boston currently owns it and the City clears title by taking land. They are planning on issuing an RFP (Request For Proposals) perhaps as early as next week with a quick time frame envisioned to award the property to a selected developer. The project would be designated as a “Demonstration Project” the same designation that was given to the Yawkey Way deal with the Boston Red Sox which is currently under legal challenge. At issue is whether the BRA violated the State Competitive Bidding Law Chapter 30B, and whether the BRA had the right to take ownership by declaring the booming area next to Fenway Park as blighted. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/07/16/blight-yawkey-way-judge-says-way/rZd0V1XtbjTaOdTVE0c6gI/story.html) If the BRA takes the property by eminent domain it will completely circumvent the legal transaction from the Boston City Council having any input on the deal whatsoever. It would be a very interesting move to make just as the Boston City Council is currently debating whether to extend the urban renewal powers of the BRA which includes continuing to give the BRA eminent domain powers over large sections of the City. This eminent domain power can be used by the BRA without approval from either the legislative or executive branches of the government. In other words, they can use eminent domain without any public oversight through their elected officials. The BRA has been meeting with members of the City Council in private to lobby them to extend the BRA urban renewal powers.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

City Council on trail tomorrow morning in Suffolk Superior Court

The hopefully final hearing in the 6 year plus McCrea v. City Council case will be tomorrow morning at Suffolk Superior Court,
room 304.

Expected to testify for the defense is councilor Ross, being called by the plaintiffs is councilor Murphy, councilor Feeney and City clerk Rosaria Salerno.

The council has already plead guilty on all counts, this is a hearing to determine the consequences of their actions.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Final hearing in McCrea et al V. Flaherty and the City Council postponed

We were supposed to have the final hearing in the McCrea v. City Council case this Wednesday at 9 am in Suffolk Superior court. However, a trial is going on longer than expected and so the case has been postponed until a date we can mutually agree upon.

Also, in case anyone was wondering, I am NOT running for City council this year.

I will try and update the blog once we have a new final hearing date. Councilors Ross, Feeney and Murphy and City Clerk Rosaria Salerno are possibly going to testify about how the City council now acts more transparently.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The End of What we know as America?

Here is the last column from Bob Herbert of the NY Times. Very powerful. However, the NY Times and writers should look in the mirror when they support people like Barack Obama who clearly are part of this agenda, instead of other credible candidates such as Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich. The Times is part of the problem, and engages in the tax break shananigans
of which he complains.

So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.

Nearly 14 million Americans are jobless and the outlook for many of them is grim. Since there is just one job available for every five individuals looking for work, four of the five are out of luck. Instead of a land of opportunity, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a place of limited expectations. A college professor in Washington told me this week that graduates from his program were finding jobs, but they were not making very much money, certainly not enough to think about raising a family.

There is plenty of economic activity in the U.S., and plenty of wealth. But like greedy children, the folks at the top are seizing virtually all the marbles. Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. As the Economic Policy Institute has reported, the richest 10 percent of Americans received an unconscionable 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007, the most recent extended period of economic expansion.

Americans behave as if this is somehow normal or acceptable. It shouldn’t be, and didn’t used to be. Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.

The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent.

This inequality, in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences.

A stark example of the fundamental unfairness that is now so widespread was in The New York Times on Friday under the headline: “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether.” Despite profits of $14.2 billion — $5.1 billion from its operations in the United States — General Electric did not have to pay any U.S. taxes last year.

As The Times’s David Kocieniewski reported, “Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore.”

G.E. is the nation’s largest corporation. Its chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, is the leader of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. You can understand how ordinary workers might look at this cozy corporate-government arrangement and conclude that it is not fully committed to the best interests of working people.

Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.

New ideas and new leadership have seldom been more urgently needed.

This is my last column for The New York Times after an exhilarating, nearly 18-year run. I’m off to write a book and expand my efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society. My thanks to all the readers who have been so kind to me over the years. I can be reached going forward at bobherbert88@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Another great column in the Times about what America Needs---Education

Education has been on my mind this week. One of my workers who recently spent 3 years in maximum security prison in MA got his G.E.D. after working with me, studying, getting his own place and with help from ABCD. Congratulations! It is a long road, but we need to get ourselves going.

The Boston Public Schools are atrocious, I try and hire kids who attend these schools all the time. We can't sugar coat it, we have to do something about it, but the leadership in our city is not there.

Some food for thought:

For me, the most frightening news in The Times on Sunday was not about North Korea’s stepping up its nuclear program, but an article about how American kids are stepping up their use of digital devices: “Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying. But this proficiency comes at a cost: She blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report. “I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’ ”

Josh Haner/The New York Times
Thomas L. Friedman
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I don’t want to pick on Miller. I highlight her words only because they’re integral to a much larger point: Our unemployment today is not only because of the financial crisis. There are some deeper problems. If we’re going to get more Americans back to work, we will need more stimulus from the U.S.G. — the U.S. government — from the top down. But we will also need more stimulus from the P.T.A.’s — the Parent Teacher Associations — from the bottom up.

The deeper problems fostering unemployment in America today can be summarized in three paragraphs:

Global competition is stiffer. Just think about two of our most elite colleges. When Harvard and Yale were all male, applicants had to compete only against a pool of white males to get in. But when Harvard and Yale admitted women and more minorities, white males had to step up their game. But when the cold war ended, globalization took hold. As Harvard and Yale started to admit more Chinese, Indians, Singaporeans, Poles and Vietnamese, both American men and women had to step up their games to get in. And as the education systems of China, India, Singapore, Poland and Vietnam continue to improve, and more of their cream rises to the top and more of their young people apply to Ivy League schools, it is only going to get more competitive for American men and women at every school.

Then, just as the world was getting flattened by globalization, technology went on a rampage — destroying more low-end jobs and creating more high-end jobs faster than ever. What computers, hand-held devices, wireless technology and robots do in aggregate is empower better-educated and higher-skilled workers to be more productive — so they can raise their incomes — while eliminating many lower-skilled service and factory jobs altogether. Now the best-educated workers, capable of doing the critical thinking that machines can’t do, get richer while the least-educated get pink slips. (We used to have a receptionist at our office. She was replaced by a micro-chip. We got voice mail.)

Finally, just when globalization and technology were making the value of higher education greater than ever, and the price for lacking it more punishing than ever, America started slipping behind its peers in high school graduation rates, college graduation and global test scores in math and critical thinking.

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it to me in an interview, 50 years ago if you dropped out, you could get a job in the stockyards or steel mill and still “own your own home and support your family.” Today, there are no such good jobs for high school dropouts. “They’re gone,” said Duncan. “That’s what we haven’t adjusted to.” When kids drop out today, “they’re condemned to poverty and social failure.” There are barely any jobs left for someone with only a high school diploma, and that’s only valuable today if it has truly prepared you to go on to higher education without remediation — the only ticket to a decent job.

Beyond the recession, this triple whammy is one of the main reasons that middle-class wages have been stagnating. To overcome that, we need to enlist both the U.S.G. and the P.T.A. We need teachers and principals who are paid better for better performance, but also valued for their long hours and dedication to students and learning. We need better parents ready to hold their kids to higher standards of academic achievement. We need better students who come to school ready to learn, not to text. And to support all of this, we need an all-society effort — from the White House to the classroom to the living room — to nurture a culture of achievement and excellence.

If you want to know who’s doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced — America’s top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.

Do you see a pattern?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Great column by Friedman in the NY Times

A friend in the U.S. military sent me an e-mail last week with a quote from the historian Lewis Mumford’s book, “The Condition of Man,” about the development of civilization. Mumford was describing Rome’s decline: “Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”

It was one of those history passages that echo so loudly in the present that it sends a shiver down my spine — way, way too close for comfort.

I’ve just spent a week in Silicon Valley, talking with technologists from Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, Intel, Cisco and SRI and can definitively report that this region has not lost its “inner go.” But in talks here and elsewhere I continue to be astounded by the level of disgust with Washington, D.C., and our two-party system — so much so that I am ready to hazard a prediction: Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.

There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.

President Obama has not been a do-nothing failure. He has some real accomplishments. He passed a health care expansion, a financial regulation expansion, stabilized the economy, started a national education reform initiative and has conducted a smart and tough war on Al Qaeda.

But there is another angle on the last two years: a president who won a sweeping political mandate, propelled by an energized youth movement and with control of both the House and the Senate — about as much power as any president could ever hope to muster in peacetime — was only able to pass an expansion of health care that is a suboptimal amalgam of tortured compromises that no one is certain will work or that we can afford (and doesn’t deal with the cost or quality problems), a limited stimulus that has not relieved unemployment or fixed our infrastructure, and a financial regulation bill that still needs to be interpreted by regulators because no one could agree on crucial provisions. Plus, Obama had to abandon an energy-climate bill altogether, and if the G.O.P. takes back the House, we may not have an energy bill until 2013.

Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority. Suboptimal is O.K. for ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now. Pretty good is not even close to good enough today.

“We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country,” said the Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond. Indeed, our two-party system is ossified; it lacks integrity and creativity and any sense of courage or high-aspiration in confronting our problems. We simply will not be able to do the things we need to do as a country to move forward “with all the vested interests that have accrued around these two parties,” added Diamond. “They cannot think about the overall public good and the longer term anymore because both parties are trapped in short-term, zero-sum calculations,” where each one’s gains are seen as the other’s losses.

We have to rip open this two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a serious third party that will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.

“If competition is good for our economy,” asks Diamond, “why isn’t it good for our politics?”

We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: “These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”