Wu says ZBA needs ‘structural changes’
A majority of the Boston City Council voted to block the appointment of three new members to the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) on Wednesday. Instead, the council voted 7-5 to approve recommendations of a committee led by at-large Councillor Michelle Wu to further reform the ZBA in the wake of a corruption scandal that rocked City Hall last year.
Wu, who chairs the Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation, asked her colleagues to require new nominations to be offered following changes outlined in a home-rule petition passed by the council last week. The petition, which has been approved by Mayor Walsh, would add members and alternate members nominated by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. It must be approved by the state Legislature.
In their vote on Wednesday, the council effectively blocked the appointments of Timothy Burke, Ann Beha, and Konstantinos Ligris, nominated by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board and the Boston Society of Architects. Kerry Walsh Logue, who presently serves on the board, would remain in front of the committee until Sept. 16.
The vote to reject the nominations “without prejudice” clears the docket for new applicants, but allows any existing nominees to reapply or be resubmitted by nominating organizations. The City Council won’t meet again until Sept. 16, so they won’t be able to vote on any new appointees before the next ZBA meeting.
“These nominations before us today include filling a vacancy from the wake of the federal investigation and have been in committee over the last few months as the council has been waiting on reports and the process on the home-rule petition which we voted through last meeting,” said Wu.
“The changes that we voted on and that the mayor signed would modernize the board, promote transparency, and introduce structural changes to the expertise reflected on the board, specifically adding a requirement for expertise in climate change and environmental protection as well as urban planning.”
The roll call of each vote was the same; Councillors Ricardo Arroyo, Kenzi Bok, Lydia Edwards, Kim Janey, Julia Mejia and Wu voted in favor of the committee’s recommendation. Councillors Frank Baker, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn, Annissa Essaibi-George and Matt O’Malley voted nay. Councillor Andrea Campbell did not cast a vote on the four members.
The ZBA came under intense scrutiny last year following the conviction of a City Hall official, John M. Lynch, who pled guilty to accepting a $50,000 from a developer who wanted Lynch to exert his influence at the ZBA to secure permits for a South Boston project. A subsequent review of the case, commissioned by Mayor Walsh and conducted by the law firm Sullivan & Worcester, found that there was no wrong-doing by members of the ZBA.
Former board member and Dorchester real-estate broker Craig Galvin resigned from the ZBA after the Lynch indictment became public, but was not charged with any crime. Former ISD Commissioner William Christopher, whose architectural firm worked on the project in question, also stepped down from his City Hall job. Lynch was sentenced to about three years in prison for the crime of accepting a bribe.
In February, Mayor Walsh signed an executive order that he said would modernize the board and put in place new prohibitions on members voting on projects that could pose conflicts of interest.
There are currently four board members and three alternatives seated on the ZBA, and five are required to reach a quorum. The home rule petition passed by the council would create seven seats and seven alternates.
“This is not about the individuals, it’s about larger structural issues and this moment that we’re in given the recent history of the board,” said Wu, “This will allow all of us to vet the potential nominees and then be prepared to suspend and pass in the Sept. 16 City Council meeting.”
In past meetings, some councillors have argued that denying the nominations would only further hinder already-postponed hearings that move development projects in the city forward.
Wu did acknowledge that ZBA members have faced difficulties because of a pause on their work during the pandemic and now face “a large backlog” of cases pending their review.
“I want to just thank all ZBA members who are sitting on the board now and everyone who has put themselves forward to sit on a board. They don’t do it for the pay or the glamour and they do extremely important work,” she said.
Since the committee meeting last Thursday, Wu said she’s spoken with both of the nominating organizations involved with the recent batch of nominees.
“Both are familiar with the timeline and well briefed on what is happening. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board does not wish to alter their nominee and is worried about setting precedents of extra requirements and worried about the council asking additional questions,” she said.
“Our legal basis for this committee report is the wide latitude that the state statute gives the council to vote to confirm or reject nominees. We have unrestricted latitude in our vote today.”
She added that the other nominating organization, Boston Society of Architects (BSA), said in a letter to the council that while they still stand behind their nominees they “understand that the recommendation is to align the nomination process with the home rule and they are prepared to present new nominees in this swift timeline that match the types of expertise laid out.”