If a local zoning board of appeals wants to review proposed changes to a builder’s lot size, it must do so in public.
The proposal must be advertised. The public must be allowed to participate in any discussion. Votes must be recorded.
But if the Massachusetts Legislature wants to waive environmental restrictions to enable a billionaire to build a stadium near a casino, it can all be done secretly.
No advance warning. No public input. No debate.
It’s another example of how Beacon Hill makes the rules but doesn’t play by them.
The latest affront to the public took place late last Thursday when the House passed a $3.8 billion economic development bill.
Among nearly 900 amendments to the package was one that would exempt a 43-acre industrial property near Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett on the Boston line from a slew of environmental requirements so it could be developed as a “sports, recreation or events center.”
Outside of Everett’s state representative and mayor, few knew the amendment’s intention: To allow Robert Kraft to move the New England Revolution out of massive Gillette Stadium in Foxboro to a more desirable, smaller venue in an urban location, closer to the soccer team’s primary fan base.
Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, told The Boston Globe the Kraft Group and state lawmakers cut “a sweetheart deal in the dead of the night.” The amendment’s language “would wipe away fundamental protections of the public interest that have been in place literally for centuries.”
The Legislature can do this — or at least try to, as the Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker also must sign off on the deal — because of a massive exemption in the state’s public records and meetings law.
With few exceptions, municipal government bodies, from the select board and school committee down to the zoning board, must give advance notice on meetings, hold those meetings in public and record any vote. Nearly all documents and correspondence, including those done digitally such as an email, must be made public.
But the Legislature, which writes the public records and meetings rules, exempts itself and the executive branch. Meetings can be conducted behind closed doors, and discussions kept secret.
Lawmakers will argue that this will allow for free and frank discussions of issues. But that’s nonsense and a slap in the face to taxpayers.
The Legislature is conducting the public’s business and should do so in public, with records kept and made easily accessible to the public. Lawmakers must be held to the same standards as members of the select board, school committee and, yes, zoning board.
The days of “sweetheart deals” must come to an end.