Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Protesters of a state decision to restrict Riverbend Park to Sundays gather Saturday before a ride. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A trove of documents released Tuesday through a citizen’s public records request provides insight into the state government’s decision in April to stop closings of Memorial Drive on Saturdays to create Riverbend Park.

The documents show the inner workings of layers of state government struggling to come to a decision on what to do about the park. The most explosive details are outlined in a March 25 email addressed to Gov. Maura Healey and compiled by Rebecca Tepper, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs.

“This has become a political mess and we don’t need to get into the middle of it … No matter what we decide there will be blowback, but I think this is the right course,” Tepper writes in laying out a Department of Conservation and Recreation position for ending Saturday closings of Memorial Drive to car traffic. A state law enacted in 1985 calls for Sunday closings.

Tepper focuses on the interpersonal relationships and political machinations driving controversy surrounding the issue. “The extension of the park hours has a pretty tortured history and has caused Rep. Connelly [sic] and Rep. Decker, who represents the area of the city that includes the park, to have a falling out. Rep. Connelly is staunchly in support of the closure while Rep. Decker is staunchly opposed,” Tepper wrote in an email dated March 25, referring to legislators Mike Connolly and Marjorie Decker.

Decker’s prolonged absence from the public debate generated significant intrigue this year. In June, she finally spoke, telling constituents in a form email that she has “not ever publicly or privately advocated against Saturday closings. My goal for the past year has been for DCR to engage with impacted community members and elected officials.”

On Wednesday, Decker released a statement on Twitter strongly denying that she was ever opposed. “The email from Secretary Tepper does not, and never has, reflect either my current position, or any position I have articulated in the past. The fact is that I have never stated any personal opposition to the closure of Memorial Drive on Saturdays.”

On this front, Tepper’s memo either brazenly mischaracterizes Decker’s position, or it reveals an underlying truth. A person present at the meeting described it to Cambridge Day long before the state released Tepper’s memo; the memo seems to confirm the first account as accurate. Specifically, Decker was remembered as asking her colleagues to take no further action to open the park on Saturdays.

The public records request was made by Jake Walker, a lawyer and Roslindale resident. Reached by phone Wednesday, Walker said he filed the request in April “on a whim” after hearing about the debate around the issue and feeling that “there was more to the story.”

Factual inaccuracies

The release of the documents set off a firestorm of local politicians taking issue with Tepper’s memo as inaccurate on publicly available information. “The ‘neighborhood’ is not overwhelmingly opposed to the closure. Hundreds of Riverside neighbors signed a petition in support. So much wrong here.” said city councillor Marc McGovern on Twitter in response to a characterization in Tepper’s memo that those in the Riverside community do not want Memorial Drive closed to car traffic on Saturdays.

Councillor Quinton Zondervan took issue with Tepper’s claim that the council “reversed its support of the extension” last summer. “Contrary to the false claim in this document, the City Council never reversed its position in support of Saturday closures. The motion by Councillor Simmons to reverse course was tabled and then unanimously placed on file,” Zondervan said on Twitter on Tuesday, referring to city councilor E. Denise Simmons.

Zondervan’s recollection is correct. While there was debate on the council about what to do about Riverbend Park, the body never voted to request ending Saturday closings of Memorial Drive to car traffic. In decisive 7-2 votes on Feb. 27 and Apr. 24, the council affirmed its commitment to closing Memorial Drive to cars on Saturdays.

Finally, Connolly takes issue with Tepper’s assertion that the closings “create traffic issues and lead to more congestion into [environmental justice] neighborhoods.”

“To my recollection no evidence was ever presented to us in that winter meeting with DCR that would have supported the claim,” Connolly said when reached for comment on Wednesday.

The legal question

Besides claims of the legislative delegation and council being split on the issue, Tepper also points out a possible legal issue: “It is not clear now that the Covid emergency is over that DCR has the authority to go beyond what the statute [of 1985] provides.”

An email from DCR general counsel Tom LaRosa dated Feb. 27 says the opposite.

“Nothing in the Act limits or restricts DCR from expanding the hours or days of Riverbend Park. If DCR seeks to expand the hours/days of Riverbend Park and the associated closure of that stretch (or a more expansive stretch) of Memorial Drive, that should fall within DCR’s authority,” LaRosa writes in describing the agency’s powers on the issue.

Indeed, documents included by the department in response to the request for Riverbend Park shutdowns show officials communicating back and forth on a one-off shutdown of Memorial Drive for a movie shoot. “Is it fair to say that you should be able to work out the logistics with the movie people but you want to make sure the gov’s office is okay with the road shut down?” Tepper writes in an email dated March 13.

A question posed Tuesday to the agency via email about its understanding of LaRosa’s email and its statutory powers to shut down the stretch on Saturdays was not yet answered. DCR never supplied a comment after promising one.

The final word on what to do about Riverbend Park comes from Healey’s non-public email address starting at 3:41 p.m. March 27, as an aide to the governor notes that Tepper’s recommendations were originally sent to Healy’s public email address. “I’ll take a look now,” Healy writes at 7:18 p.m.

Just over three hours later, the final decision comes in: “The [lieutenant governor] and I talked and agree with your recommendation, Rebecca. This will be for the legislature to change if they want to change the law,” Healy says at 10:22 p.m.

This post was updated July 31, 2023, to show that state officials never supplied a promised response.