Editorial: Scandal signals reform is a must at City Hall

The fallout from the City Hall bribery scandal that erupted on Sept. 6 with the admission of guilt from former city worker John Lynch intensified this week.

Lynch, who until recently had worked in a variety of City Hall jobs starting with the Kevin White administration, took $50,000 to use his “influence” to lobby a Zoning Board of Appeal member to approve a permit extension for a condo project in South Boston.

According to US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s account, Lynch has admitted to the crime and agreed to do up to five years in prison for it. That’s a long stretch, which indicates that there may be more to come as Lelling continues his probe.

But even if there are no more charges or plea deals, make no mistake: It’s the most serious crisis of the Walsh era. The administration’s response —to date—indicates that they know things have to be handled without ambiguity.

William ‘Buddy’ Christopher, a close aide to Mayor Walsh who continues to be a respected member of his administration, began a leave of absence last Friday. A private architect before joining Walsh’s cabinet in 2014, Christopher did work for Lynch in his earlier career.

Over the weekend, Craig Galvin resigned from his seat on the Zoning Board of Appeal. A Dorchester realtor who has served on the ZBA since 2016 in a seat specifically reserved for a realtor, he reportedly was the ZBA member who made a motion that led to a favorable outcome for the developer who is said to have paid off Lynch. Since the charges against Lynch were made public by Lelling’s office, a series of reports in the Boston Globe have detailed a prior business relationship between Galvin and Lynch.

It’s important to note that neither Galvin nor Christopher— who until recently ran the city’s Inspectional Services Division (ISD)— have been charged with any criminal wrongdoing in the matter.

The Zoning Board met this week on Tuesday, despite calls from some observers for a suspension of business until the investigation concludes and more dramatic reform is executed. To his credit, Walsh immediately ordered a review of the ZBA by the Boston law firm Sullivan & Worcester. The mayor has promised a “comprehensive review beginning with the rules and regulations in place that dictate how the ZBA conducts business on behalf of the residents of Boston, and those with matters before the board.”

The mayor is not alone in seeking a more long-term remedy. City Council President Andrea Campbell on Tuesday proposed the creation of a new Inspector General – a Boston IG – who would police city government and, in her words, “root out corruption.” In the past, that has been the purview of the state. But, Campbell has a good argument. Many other big cities in the US have one. And, seeking outside counsel to probe internal city matters on a case-by-case basis seems unwieldly.

Walsh is said to be irate— and he should be. He’s probably also confounded, as many observers are, about why a vote on a routine ZBA permit extension has led to such naked public corruption.

If there’s an upside, perhaps looking deeply into the matter will lead to reforms that seem obvious to casual observers. The ZBA is composed of an unpaid group of appointees who are faced with an onslaught of weekly business, ranging from small-bore requests to enlarge an outdoor deck to approving variances for skyscrapers. It’s a torrent of work in a booming city. The board is mandated by state law to include certain members by profession, which is why there is a dedicated seat for a realtor— a dynamic that seems like a bad idea on its face. The potential for conflicts of interests— and recusals that could also hamper efficient reviews— is around every bend.

At the end of the day, and for better or for worse, this could be a defining moment for the Walsh administration.

–Bill Forry