Reporter’s Notebook: Judge hears last words on the open-meeting suit vs. Council

For the City Council, a long nightmare of its own making is almost over. A Superior Court judge is now weighing whether – and how – to further punish the 13-member body, which was first yanked into court in 2005 over multiple violations of the state’s open meeting laws.

Judge John Cratsley on Tuesday heard closing arguments from one of City Hall’s in-house attorneys and two of the people who brought a successful lawsuit against the City Council, local activists Kevin McCrea and Shirley Kressel, and took testimony on Monday from City Councillors Stephen Murphy, Maureen Feeney and Michael Ross.

First, some history: The council pleaded guilty in 2008 to violating the meeting law, illegally gathering between 2003 and 2005 over urban renewal plans handled by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and an outbreak at a Boston University bio-laboratory. As a state appeals court starkly put it, “The city council of Boston … finds itself, not for the first time, on the losing end of a determination that it has improperly excluded the public from its deliberations.”

City Hall attorney David Waterfall argued there has been a “change in culture” within the legislative body since it pleaded guilty to the violations and noted the turnover in its membership. Only four councillors remain from 2003, when Michael Flaherty was president: Charles Yancey and Feeney, Murphy and Ross.

But McCrea and Kressel argue that the council continues to violate the open meeting law and exploit legal loopholes and so it should be punished with a court injunction, or court oversight. The injunction, which would force the council to obey the open meeting law, would leave the council liable to be sued for future violations and be held in contempt of court without plaintiffs having to start another lawsuit completely from scratch, they say.

McCrea and Kressel are willing to waive an $11,000 fine that a separate judge levied on the council – $1,000 for each open meeting law violation – because it would only come out of the taxpayers’ hide at a time when the city is struggling financially, McCrea said. The city has agreed to pay $850 to McCrea and Kressel to cover the cost of filing the lawsuit and copying court documents.

Acting as their own lawyers, McCrea and Kressel say materials that should be publicly available remain hard to obtain, and the City Council violated the open meeting law by taking up the city and school budgets earlier this month when neither item was on the agenda for the day.

Councillors maintain that the annual procedural votes were put on a list of hearings and meetings the City Council holds every year on the city’s $2.4 billion budget. The final budget vote comes next week. Councillors typically vote to reject the two budgets earlier in June, allowing the mayor to file a revised and updated budget.

In a testy exchange Monday while McCrea, who has run for mayor and City Council At-Large, was questioning him, Murphy said in court that the council had taken pro-active steps in the last few years. He said an injunction would be a “slap in the face” and accused McCrea of asking “gotcha questions.”

Murphy, who is serving as City Council president, also quibbled with City Hall attorneys’ defense of the council in court and the eventual admission of guilt several years ago, saying, “I don’t believe the city counsel took an active role in its defense six, seven years ago.”

McCrea said he and Kressel were unable to recently get a write-up of council meetings from the City Council’s receptionist. “Maybe you should’ve gone to the department head instead of the receptionist,” Murphy shot back, and clarified that he meant City Council committee chairs when he used the term “department head.” When he was chair of the Public Safety Committee, Murphy said, he kept notes of meetings that were available to the public.

In his closing argument Tuesday, Waterfall echoed Murphy’s “slap in the face” comment and added that the council had been prideful and clearly “didn’t enjoy being sued.” The lawsuit has helped stem the ignorance and faulty training on the state’s open meeting law, he added.

No lawsuits over the open meeting law have been filed in the last two years, Waterfall said, and an injunction would invite frivolous ones.

“In a sense, I think they’ve already won,” he said of McCrea and Kressel.

District 3 forum at St. Mark’s civic group

The St. Mark’s Area Civic Association has scheduled a District 3 forum for next Tuesday (June 28) at 7 p.m. in the St. Mark’s Church hall. Seven candidates are vying to replace City Councillor Feeney, including Frank Baker, Doug Bennett, Stephanie Everett, Craig Galvin, Marty Hogan, John O’Toole, and Marydith Tuitt.

Endorsement Corner: Reps. Walsh, Collins back Baker for District 3

Endorsements are coming early in District 3: Savin Hill’s Baker is touting the support of state Reps. Martin Walsh (D-Dorchester) and Nick Collins (D-South Boston) in his bid to replace City Councillor Feeney. Walsh’s endorsement won’t come as much of surprise to local political observers: Baker, who once worked in the city’s printing department, is a longtime supporter of Walsh’s many runs for his State House seat, which the lawmaker has held since 1997. Walsh is also a top union official, and heads the Boston Building Trades Council. Collins is a freshman whose district includes small parts of Dorchester, including a sliver of Columbia Point and the Polish Triangle. Baker also picked up the endorsement of state Sen. Steve Tolman (D-Brighton) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 674.

Quote of Note: Gov. Patrickon DiMasi corruption case

“I think frankly it’s not just the conviction, it’s the whole sordid episode that has shaken people’s confidence in state government,” Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters earlier this week, according to the State House News Service. “But I can tell you I work here every day. I work really hard. I work with people who run to work and keep the public’s interest foremost in mind and we deal with people who are really overwhelmingly like-minded.” His comments came days after a federal jury found former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and a Beacon Hill lobbyist guilty of conspiracy and fraud. DiMasi and the lobbyist, Richard McDonough, are planning to appeal. Meanwhile, they are due to be sentenced on Sept. 8.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out updates to Boston’s political scene at The Lit Drop, located at dotnews.com/litdrop. Follow us on Twitter @LitDrop and @gintautasd.