The news business doesn’t celebrate “Sunshine Week” until March, but we’ve had so many snow threads, and this is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile.
It’s been a busy past year at the Zoning Board of Appeals, with 40B hearings on Court Street, Wells Ave, Rowe Street, and Goddard Street. But unlike the Aldermanic Committees, whose Reports and audios are usually put up on the city website in a fairly timely manner by City Clerk David Olson, information on what happens at non-Aldermanic boards and commissions is harder to come by. And whether by design, or lack of caring by anyone with the power to do something about it, the ZBA seems particularly opaque, which is troubling considering the interest in development-related issues and 40Bs.
Above is what the ZBA page for 2014 hearings looks like today. The underlined blue items are clickable; all the others have no information accessible online. So only four of 11 agendas are viewable, and only the January 2014 audio and decision are uploaded. No actual minutes are ever uploaded, although presumably some must be kept. This dearth of information prompted me to buy an extra audio recorder to lend to people going to ZBA hearings in order to know what happened; as a result, there are now more recent ZBA audios on the Newton Villages Alliance yourlisten.com page than on the ZBA page. But should do-it-yourself really be necessary to achieve transparency in government?
And to add insult to injury (or maybe it’s the other way around), if you’re a regular person who wants to get an audio of a ZBA hearing, the fee is $15! Two people I know went separately to obtain audio of a Wells Ave 40B hearing that we didn’t manage to record, and were each charged this amount for a CD. This seems rather steep for public information that should and could be readily available on the city website, and if not intended to discourage people from being informed, it could certainly have that effect. By contrast, if someone wants a CD of an Aldermanic committee audio, David Olson tells me they don’t charge if it’s only one. I’m not sure if that’s one per visit, one per lifetime or something in between, but for these audios there is also the option to download the mp3 from the city website.
The Newton Historical Commission, the other development-related commission with actual power (to impose demolition delays), now has all its 2014 agendas, and almost all of its 2014 minutes posted. The Planning & Development Board is great at posting agendas and packets, but not minutes, and the Newton Housing Partnership is not much better than the ZBA at posting anything. As far as I can tell, these two boards are advisory — but they should still at least be posting minutes. And all of these committees could be uploading audios. As that voice used to say at the beginning of The Six Million Dollar Man, “we have the technology.”