Saturday, July 20, 2024

Cambridge city councillor Patty Nolan speaks at an April 29 rally about Riverbend Park. With her, from left, are councillors Marc McGovern, Dennis Carlone and Burhan Azeem. (Photo: Tom Meek)

After documents were released last month showing a decision-making process based on inaccuracies and against the advice of legal counsel, three Cambridge city councillors are renewing a call to the state to make Riverbend Park available for recreation on Saturdays.

The papers show Rebecca Tepper, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs, advising Gov. Maura Healey that Riverbend Park – created by closing Memorial Drive to car traffic – “has become a political mess and we don’t need to get into the middle of it.”

Yet state officials are now firmly in the middle, and the hot seat, after the release of documents from a public records request by Jake Walker, a lawyer and Roslindale resident who said he uses Riverbend Park. The state officials cite the Riverside neighborhood as being opposed to the park keeping Saturday hours and the City Council as having reversed its support for the hours – neither of which is true.

State officials also suggested that the 1985 law creating Riverbend Park on Sundays doesn’t allow for the addition of Saturdays, while an email from Department of Conservation and Recreation general counsel Tom LaRosa said Feb. 27 that “Nothing in the Act limits or restricts DCR from expanding the hours or days of Riverbend Park.”

In a Wednesday letter, councillors Patty Nolan, Dennis Carlone and Burhan Azeem cite the inaccuracies and call for the state to try again to explain its reasoning for denying Saturday use of the park – and that Saturday openings go into effect, with the state and city collaborating on traffic signal changes that should alleviate the traffic problems that have a “small number of neighbors” opposed.

“We believe their concerns can be addressed through some traffic mitigation,” the councillors said.

The documents released say, “incorrectly, that the neighborhood is divided,” the letter says. “All evidence gathered for community input has shown support for the extended hours by an overwhelming majority of immediate neighbors as well as residents across the city. That widespread support is documented in the city’s survey of residents, the feedback from several community meetings and a petition put forth by community groups. The one city councillor who grew up and lives in the neighborhood is in full support of Saturday inclusion,” it says, referring to Marc McGovern.

McGovern responded to the state July 25 making the same point as the letter-writers: “The ‘neighborhood’ is not overwhelmingly opposed to the closure. Hundreds of Riverside neighbors signed a petition in support.”

The letter was limited to three councillors only to ensure there was no violation of Open Meeting Law by including others, Nolan said Wednesday.

The letter emerged as “Dennis, Burhan and I talked about our frustration and concern over the decision and the documents released [and] decided to respond together,” Nolan said.

The councillors also point to the state’s own legal counsel – who had provided the same advice in April 2020 saying that closing Memorial Drive was allowed by law – and an email included in the trove from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs staff, also from Feb. 27, saying that “DCR is legally required to comply with the City Council directive.”

Though Tepper’s memo claimed the council had reversed its view on Riverbend Park, the council had only affirmed its commitment to closing Memorial Drive to cars on Saturdays in decisive 7-2 votes on Feb. 27 and April 24.

“We have significant questions about this statement. If DCR is legally required to comply with the City Council directive, DCR should have opened Riverbend Park on Saturdays this season based on our City Council order,” the letter says.

An email was sent Wednesday to the Department of Conservation and Recreation seeking reaction to the councillors’ letter.