The word “process”, is used to describe the agreed-upon, knowable and observable steps the government and ordinary citizens can anticipate when watching the progress of a political issue. It illuminates the path that we expect to follow to be heard in an adversarial or administrative setting. But, process is meant to offer meaningful participation and not demean the value of that participation by paying it no homage.
Last Wednesday night I attended the Zoning and Planning Committee Meeting of the BOA, specifically to hear the discussion of the possibilities of intervention of some sort by the City in the Congregation Mishkan Tefila pending property sale to Boston College.
To do that I sat through a Public Hearing on an item of great importance that I had only dabbled in following. Several times over the last few years I attended the nitty-gritty, down and dirty, Chapter 30 Zoning Regulation Revision sessions of Phase I. I felt assured that the purpose of Phase I, to re-codify the Zoning rules that govern our City’s building laws to improve their usability, needed full attention by the editors, but less from me personally, since the pact that was articulated by the Committee many times was NO SUBSTANTIVE CHANGES WILL BE MADE IN PHASE I.
I know the sessions, even after the Consultant gave his report, were tiring and tedious. As a non-lawyer, with a shallow knowledge of zoning challenges, I recognized the importance that substantive changes would make and figured that I would delve deeper when Phase II arrived. Others were wiser than I. I know several capable experts in our Zoning Regulation’s workings who pored over those details, following the redline edits at each ZAP Meeting, writing to the Committee to point out errors and omissions. Here is how the “process” played out in its fully flawed entirety.
At the Public Hearing Rena Getz, Ron Mauri, Debbie Waller, and George Mansfield spoke to further errors and omissions that the “final” document contained. These were not “scrivener’s errors”, those trite, trivial, unintentional mistakes that result from the slip of a pen point. If these errors and omissions are as described, they will leave the Phase 1 document with holes, dead-ends and missing information. The ISD will have to interpret its permissions with no written legal framework for some of them. To fix these problems, amendments to the new Regulation would need to be passed. Remember that using the tool of Zoning Regulation amendments led, in the first place, to the desperate need for the recodification of the convoluted document that evolved! I don’t think this is the “perfect” being the enemy of the “good”. It is the “tired” wanting to get it off their desk on a busy night.
What happened at this sham “Public Hearing”? You can read the Report here but here’s the short story. There was a back and forth discussion about whether to hold the item for two weeks to resolve issues mentioned during the public hearing, and if it was practical to have a separate item on the substantive change of the “Two-Family Detached Home” definition that Ald. Ted Hess Mahan squished into the recodification due to complaints from his constituents about an extremely out-of-character new double-house in their neighborhood. The specific comments from former Alderman and knowledgeable former ZAP Committee member George Mansfield and others were completely ignored as was a written submission to the Committee by Rena Getz. Instead of either having a substantive discussion of the points raised or holding the item for two weeks, this Docket Item to substitute the new Zoning Regulation for the old one was passed by the Committee on Wednesday, with Ald. Kalis abstaining; Alds. Baker, Sangiolo, and Yates voting no; and Alds. Hess-Mahan, Johnson, Leary and Danberg voting yes.
So, why did they hold the Public Hearing? There was no homage paid to the basic premise of a Public Hearing. Nor was respect paid to the process via the content and context of issues raised at that Public Hearing. It was an empty motion to meet a legal requirement and follow a seemingly pre-ordained path to immediate approval. If the public’s input is so meaningless, then the BOA should change its By-Laws to do away with Public Hearings. Otherwise, the BOA should change those same By-Laws to hold an item for some definite period in order to air and answer the issues put forth at a Public Hearing. At the very least the Committee should acknowledge and discuss the merits of the content of the public’s specific input and criticisms before voting.
What do you think?