CRA announces new look at Google plan, but its legality remains unknown
True to their word, new Cambridge Redevelopment Authority board members are delving into the details of a plan to build Google an expansive space in which to innovate, taking away 40 percent of a beloved Kendall Square rooftop garden from public use in the process.
Their first step: a two-hour meeting Wednesday with officials and architects from developer Boston Properties “to acquaint ourselves with the Google project,” in the words of Kathleen Born, chairwoman of the board since May 21 — the date of the first meeting of the board in two years.
“We are eager to move forward and willing to revisit,” Born said after a Tuesday meeting of a City Council subcommittee on Government Operation and Rules. Born had said something similar during the meeting: “We’re aware that there are several outstanding issues that are of tremendous interest to the members of the public and also to some members of the City Council and we will be taking up those issues on a case-by-case basis as it seems prudent. It’s not as though we are landing here at the present moment and never ever looking back. We’ll be looking back where it seems necessary.”
She referred to the previous two years, when the board stopped meeting as its active members — four appointed by City Manager Robert W. Healy, one by the state — lapsed to zero. The authority’s longtime executive director and secretary, Joseph Tulimieri, carried on doing business, though, including working on the Google plan that was presented to the council by Healy as being from “Boston Properties, together with the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.”
Authority bylaws don’t seem to grant the executive director such powers, and when board members said at their first meeting that their vote on Google issues might be “ministerial,” considering the council had already approved the plan 7-2, residents objected.
Some were on hand Tuesday to object again.
“You can’t have a circular logic going on here — the council can’t be voting on stuff they’re thinking is coming from the CRA and then the CRA starts voting on stuff they think is coming from the council. I’d like the CRA to take their votes seriously. You are not a ministerial body, and you are making important decisions for the city,” Tom Stohlman said.
When introducing the Boston Properties plan Feb. 27, Healy told the council there was an urgency to their decision. “I will only say, without going into any detail, there is a timeliness to the need to know whether this is a viable real estate option for Google to exercise,” he said at the time, and the developer and its tenant did get, for Cambridge, a whirlwind process and a favorable vote March 19. The revelation there was no active board to direct Tulimieri, the subsequent appointments and new members’ willingness to revisit the proposal could test that unexplained urgency, and on Tuesday the city manager accepted fault for the lapse in appointments that led to this chain of events:
“You can only blame me for that. The new board has been constituted in a fashion so there’ll be a much easier trigger [for replacements or reappointments] — the expiration of terms will come only one on an annual basis … I forgot when terms expire and didn’t do any reappointments and the board was functioning, and there was admittedly some uncertainty in my mind as to whether the state appointment was Barry [Zevin] or Jackie Sullivan, and Mike Rogers was active and, yes, Alan Bell moved out of the city and should have been replaced. It was my belief that there was at least enough of the board in place when I began this process a year ago of trying to reconstitute the board. The board slipped into a level of noncomplete membership.
“Without blaming anybody but myself, I guess, we’ve corrected that and we can move forward from there. But there was really not any harm transpiring in the process. The work of Boston Properties and the work of the authority was able to go forward, and while there could be controversy and discussion about it, I think all of it has been discussed in a public fashion and that the City Council has taken those votes it was necessary for the City Council to take and that the newly constituted board will in my opinion reaffirm, if that’s the correct word … the actions that could be construed as requiring more board action in the not-too-distant future.
“We can dwell in the past for as long as we want, but I think the future is where we’re at, and this is the board that can be together to do it. On lapses in appointments and matters like that I guess I have to accept responsibility.”
That didn’t entirely mollify all the officials or residents. Councillor Denise Simmons acknowledged Healy’s accepting responsibility, but insisted that “at some point, someone should have said, ‘We’re out of compliance and not in full functioning capacity.’” Resident Steve Kaiser agreed that all the blame couldn’t fall to Healy, and he counted three other offices that might have spoken up after noticing “there wasn’t a board”: the city’s Law Department, the authority’s lawyers and Tulimieri.
“The authority is the members, the five members. They never met, they never had a quorum. Any action by the authority, so labeled, is illegal,” Kaiser said, referring to the two years before the authority appointments of April 9. “I think we all understand that. I hope we do.”
Legal talk missing
But amid lengthy discussion of blame for lapsed appointments and of the authority’s origins, rights and potential for work elsewhere in Kendall Square or around the city — including tidbits that the authority once had 72 employees and now has three, and that its funding now relies solely on land sales, leaving it roughly $9 million to $10 million in the bank and an unknown amount in property value — whether authority actions of the past two years were legal was not addressed.
It was surprising because after an April 30 council meeting, former mayor and current Government Operations chairman David Maher said that he believed the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting was to clarify that the authority “is governed by the board of directors” and that he didn’t know whether the actions made without a board were legal. Asked if he would be pursuing the question, he said, “I’m sure it will be addressed” and identified the meeting as the best time to do so. According to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, it is the city’s Law Department that is responsible for determining whether the actions of the authority over the past two years fit with its bylaws, suggesting efforts could have been made in the five weeks before April 30 to get a Law Department opinion or ask a staff lawyer to attend the subcommittee meeting.
But the meeting ended with only residents such as Kaiser raising the issue of legality — unless Born’s promise to look back at “outstanding issues … where it seems necessary” counts, which Maher indicated was his belief.
“The board president has assured me that they are looking into those [issues],” Maher said after the meeting, referring to Born. “I spoke to the board president and the board president reiterated those comments, as did the executive director … what I said [April 30] is that we would be looking at that, and what I have been assured is that the CRA board, which is the governing board of the CRA, said [Tuesday] that they are going to be looking at that. That, to me, met the question.”
Born said she hadn’t spoken with Maher for the past four months, save for crossing paths at a panel honoring Tip O’Neill, and they didn’t talk business. Jeffrey Mullan, counsel to the board from the law firm Foley Hoag, said he hasn’t been asked to do a legal review of the past two years, when he was away serving as the state’s transportation secretary and chief executive. “I do know that people were generally aware that membership was not able to muster a quorum,” Mullan said of authority staff.
Nancy Glowa, acting city solicitor, said Tuesday that the Law Department was not asked to weigh in on the issue.