Community center shake-up prompts longtime members to cry foul

The Cleveland Community Center (Photo by Stephen Kurkjian)

By Stephen Kurkjian

A bitter split has erupted among past and current members of the citywide board that oversees the network of neighborhood community centers set up to provide a range of after-school programs for youths and families across the city.

Several of the five veteran members of the board who were unceremoniously sacked from the board last October are threatening to take their complaint to the state attorney general’s office – that political gamesmanship played a role in the election that resulted in their removals.

Three of the five contended in interviews that top members of the Menino administration, including Daphne Griffin, director of the Boston Centers for Youth & Families, had engineered their removal from the board last October because they had expressed dissent over her performance in leading the city’s 38 community centers.

The question of how to improve the performance of the city’s community centers, which, despite costing the city more than $20 million a year, have failed to provide high-level, active programming on a consistent and complete level, was at the core of the dispute.

Griffin, who has been director of Boston Centers for Youth & Families since 2008, says that a total restructuring of the role – and membership – of the citywide council was needed. A series of bylaw changes were instituted in 2009 to make the council more advisory than operational in nature and provide it with members who had fundraising clout in the city. They also were meant to help find members who would ensure that community centers in poorer neighborhoods without active groups maintained sufficient programming.

The dissenters contended that while they agreed with her overall push to change the council’s roles, they had little faith in Griffin’s leadership and came to believe that they were removed to blunt their criticisms and allow her to centralize control of the community centers.

“To me, this whole thing was engineered by Daphne Griffin, without a shadow of a doubt, to get rid of some dissidents to her way of doing things,” said David J. Gorman, an 80-year old West Roxbury resident who has been involved in the Ohrenberger School’s community center since it was established in the early 1970s. “This was clearly set up by her and it had the support of the mayor.”

Griffin denied that she had worked behind the scenes to remove the five members, saying she was “surprised as anyone” by the October 25 vote that resulted in their ouster. However, she acknowledged that she considered some of the five to be “antagonistic” to her leadership of the community centers and the citywide council, and that prior to the vote she had spoken with Mayor Thomas M. Menino and others in the administration about her ideas for reconfiguring the council.

Griffin said that while she regretted the removal of individuals who had long been dedicated towards improving the performance of the community centers, the citywide council desperately needed to change its focus – from operational to one of providing more overall guidance to neighborhood community centers and adding fundraising clout.

“From a visibility and fundraising standpoint, we were looking to think outside the box,” Griffin said. “I was personally looking to re-energize the board as a whole.”

Asked about the possibility that the ousted members might file an official complaint to the attorney general’s office, Griffin said:  “They should follow the course they think they need to. If the attorney general finds there to be an issue, then, of course, we would look at all of it.”

Kerry Costello of Jamaica Plain, one of the five council members ousted last October and a public school psychologist who has long been an active member of the board that oversees community centers in Jamaica Plain, said she did not disagree with Griffin’s goals. But she said her frequent clashes with Griffin centered on her concerns that Griffin was not a proven leader and yet she was seeking to centralize all policy decisions and spending by the local community centers within BCYF.

The responsibility for running the community centers had long been a shared one – between the BCYF’s central office and local citizen boards that determine what kind of programming is best suited for the centers’ roles in their neighborhoods.

However, as an in-depth article in the Reporter in March detailed, more than half of the community centers are failing to provide a full range of programming for youths and families. Invariably, those centers offering the least active programming were overseen by local boards that were inactive or barely in place.

To offset that imbalance and make sure these centers received adequate funding to operate active programming, Griffin backed several bylaw changes made in 2009 that were meant to clarify how the council operated and how members were to be elected. Kerry Costello said that while she agreed with the overall goals of those changes, she had expressed concern about the protocol being followed in adopting them.

“I wanted to make sure that all interests were served, the community centers, the neighborhood groups as well as City Hall,” said Costello. But when she brought it up to the bylaw committee, she was told “all the work was done, these are the changes,” she said.

Costello said this week that she would sign her name to the dissenters’ complaint, a draft of which viewed by the Reporter alleges that the election resulting in the removal of the five from the board was “illegal.”

Specifically, the complaint asserts that the by-laws of the board were improperly changed shortly before the October election that altered the process for becoming a member of the board. In addition to be being a member of a council for one of the neighborhood centers, which had been the sole determining factor in the past, members had to be “ratified” by a majority of the other members of the citywide board.

When the votes were counted, five members – Gorman, Costello, Bertha Banks, Steve Godfrey, and Wayne Martin – failed to win a majority and were dismissed from the citywide council. Like Costello and Gorman, the others had long been members of the citywide council because of their continuing membership on neighborhood boards.

A draft of the complaint maintains that many of the 11 members of the citywide council who voted to oust the “dissenting” five are aligned with the Menino administration as city employees, city vendors, or political allies of the mayor.

Michael Lynch, treasurer of the citywide council, denied that the ouster of the five resulted from any secret initiative to remove dissenters. Instead, he said, a year before the election of last October, the council had approved a new set of bylaws that called for the membership of the council to be altered to bring community advocates as well as those with fundraising abilities on as members.

“That the membership of the council was about to change should not have been a surprise to anyone,” said Lynch, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Cable Communications.

However, what was new for the October 2010 meeting was the mandate that each member joining the council would have to be approved by a majority of the members attending the meeting. That mandate had not been among the changes in the council’s bylaws that had been approved in 2009; but it was among the provisions that were included in a memorandum sent out to all members five days before the meeting on how the election process would proceed.

Before the balloting took place, Costello, saying she “saw the handwriting on the wall,” moved to have the council vote as one to approve the entire slate of 16 individuals whose names had been placed in nomination. But that motion was rejected; the 16 members proceeded to cast their individual ballots, and the five dissidents were out.

Ken Ryan of South Boston, a Menino political ally who chaired the committee meeting, did not return repeated phone call requests for interviews on how the majority-approval provision had made its way into the electoral process. Nikko Mendoza, then clerk of the citywide council and the author of the October memorandum outlining the new election procedure, did not respond to a call for comment either.

Mendoza has since left City Hall and is now deputy director of governmental affairs inside the office of Governor Deval Patrick.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between Watchdog New England and the Dorchester Reporter. Read the original story.

 

Cambridge skirted law on school food service inspections

At the King Open School, inspectors found animal droppings in storage areas.

By Rachel Zarrell and Gal Tziperman Lotan

The city’s Inspectional Services Department has been checking public schools for health code violations only half as frequently as state law requires even though official visits have regularly found violations such as rodent droppings, fruit flies and trash bins left open.

Although state law requires inspections of school cafeterias at least once every six months, for the past three years the department has been inspecting those in the city public schools just once a school year, according to a review of records by Cambridge Day.

Those records showed that shortcomings found by inspectors were generally minor and fixed in follow-up visits but sometimes found again in the next annual inspection.

Ranjit Singanayagam, Cambridge Inspectional Services commissioner, said he was unaware that his department had been failing to inspect the public schools’ cafeterias once every six months until reporters brought it to his attention. He said department inspectors would immediately begin making official visits to the school cafeterias every six months, as required by state law.

With more than 5,600 students, Cambridge’s school system consists of 12 elementary schools, one high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, and a small high school extension program. A review of official reports filed from the schools by department inspectors between 2008-10 uncovered such deficiencies as:

  • For three years running, the John M. Tobin School had a broken or missing trash bin behind the cafeteria.
  • Animal droppings were found in the storage rooms of the Andrew Peabody and King Open schools.
  • The Graham & Parks School had the wrong temperature on its walk-in freezer, which employees left open.
  • The Cambridgeport School was cited as having items stored on or around a kitchen grease trap.
  • At the Fletcher Maynard Academy, a lack of sanitizer was noted two years in a row in April 2008 and March 2009, taking two re-inspections each time before the problem was fixed.
  • The floor in the Kennedy-Longfellow School’s freezer was rusted and rotting, and the insulation was coming off pipes near cooking equipment.
  • A Daniel A. Haggerty School industrial stove was overdue for inspection, according to an expiration sticker on its hood.
  • The Cambridge Rindge & Latin high school was cited for having fruit flies around the sinks.

Singanayagam classified the violations as “nonmajor” and “noncritical.”  None was bad enough to shut down a cafeteria, as inspectors have the power to do in extremely unsanitary kitchens, he said.

“Any violation is dealt with serious concern,” he said. “We don’t just let it go because it’s a minor violation.”

John J. Mingle, director of food services for Cambridge Public Schools, said that as part of his job he visits all public school cafeterias constantly to make sure sanitary and food-preparation standards are followed. But state law says that’s the role of the city’s Inspectional Services Department — and, as Singanayagam said, inspectors believed they were complying with the law by visiting cafeterias once during the school months and again during the summer, when summer camp programs are run out of the schools.

The summer inspections are necessary, Singanayagam said, but he acknowledged that counting them as a full school year inspection skirted the state requirement — modeled after provisions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1999 federal food code. The food served during the summer is supplied by an outside vendor, not school employees, and is usually sandwiches and snacks, not hot meals prepared in cafeteria kitchens.

From now on, all Cambridge public school cafeterias and kitchens would be inspected under the same twice-a-year schedule mandated for restaurants and caterers in the city, Singanayagam said.

Mingle said he always thought re-inspections counted as the second one, and said he had no qualms with the failure to do a second inspection during the school year because the problems found in Cambridge’s schools are usually minor.

“They generally only find a dusty vent or a loose dripping — small stuff,” he said.

Kristen Fernandes, one of the three Cambridge sanitation inspectors, said she has never found a serious problem involving the freshness or preparation of food in a school cafeteria. “There are things that need to be corrected, but it’s never been anything about the food,” she said. “[Cafeteria workers] are very careful with what they do. … I’ve never, ever had a complaint from a parent who said that ‘my kid got sick’ in the 10 years that I’ve been here.”

In Cambridge, inspectors check for everything from how fresh the food is to prep-surface cleanliness and the knowledge of the person in charge of operations. Since the City Council passed a ban on trans fats, which went into effect July 2009, inspectors have also checked for artificial fat in the food, again finding no violations. Inspectors have routinely seen only problems with the cleanliness of kitchens and storage areas.

According to current Centers for Disease Control estimates, 48 million Americans come down with food-borne illness every year — down 20 percent from 1999. Most of the cases are mild, but 3,000 Americans die and 128,000 are hospitalized.

The need for twice-yearly inspections was underscored by Suzanne K. Condon, director of the state Bureau for Environmental Health. “You’re dealing with a population of children, who tend to be more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses. We would want to see school cafeterias inspected with regularity,” she said in an interview.

The students are more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses because “with kids, the rate of hand-washing is not as frequent as it should be. Diarrhea carries more risks when contracted by children. And in many schools, the food is often cooked off-site and transported to the school, and that creates more risk,” Condon said.

The size of Cambridge’s cafeterias may have played a role in sparing the city from the problems found recently at Boston Public Schools, where food was being routinely served to students long after it expired.

Cambridge school cafeterias keep their food in small storage rooms and freezers within each school, said the district’s chief operating officer, Jim Maloney. The largest is at the Kennedy-Longfellow School, and it’s about 450 square feet, while Boston Public Schools store food in four immense warehouses outside the city and have it delivered when needed.

Going off of a tip, in March a Boston city councilor made surprise visits to the kitchens of several Boston public schools and found expired food — frozen and stored products, including frozen beef, vegetables and cheese — on shelves ready to be served. There were egg patties and pork patties dated up to two years old.

The blame for the expired food ultimately fell on “severe mismanagement” in the school system, said the councilor, John R. Connolly, resulting in a lack of inventory control, poor menu planning and a disconnect in communication between the people at each step in the process, resulting in more food being ordered while the same food sat in storage. It was also found the free food given to the schools by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which amounts to about 15 percent of the food that ends up on Boston lunch trays, was sometimes delivered already expired.

At the behest of Connolly, Boston disposed of 280 cases of old food from 40 of 46 full-service kitchens, worth about $7,000, in April. An additional 3,000 cases of expired food worth $107,000 was also still being stored in a warehouse; thousands of cases were donated to state prisons, some of which the state Department of Correction refused to accept.

While the experiences in Boston startled Cambridge school officials, they did not report finding any expired food on their kitchen shelves. “That day when I saw the story in the Globe … I called Jack [Mingle] and said, ‘Promise me that there’s no food that’s six years old in our kitchens,’” Maloney said. “And they had already begun their own internal review to make sure that wasn’t the case.”
In the aftermath came the realization that when food arrives at schools or warehouses, it is labeled with different types of expiration dates; food may be stamped with a “sell by,” “use by” or “produced by” date, each designating the product with a separate length of shelf life.

“We’re developing a protocol for each of the three categories,” Maloney said.

Of the food served to Cambridge kids on a daily basis, about 30 percent comes from the state under the USDA. It was assumed the food met state freshness guidelines, and Maloney said school officials could be lax in checking expiration dates; the findings in Boston schools taught them that even the food from the state has the potential to arrive expired.

“I’m not going to lie, we believe that it hasn’t happened, but we don’t have any proof that it did, nor could I say with absolute certainty that it didn’t,” he said.

View all of the inspection reports here.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.

Deadline nears for suit against city’s lawyers in Monteiro case

By Rachel Zarrell and Marc Levy

Cambridge’s outside counsel in a wrongful-termination lawsuit, Ropes & Gray, has Boston offices in the Prudential Tower, seen at right in the distance. (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

The city has through the weekend to try to recoup a potential $10 million loss by suing its own lawyers in a wrongful-termination case, but the decision to sue won’t bear the endorsement of the City Council.

The timing is key in the 12-year-old case, which the city lost but is appealing. The appeal may be decided by early September, and a win could save the city millions of dollars, making it unnecessary to sue its outside counsel in the case. Either way, the statute of limitations on a lawsuit ends Sunday.

Councillor Craig Kelley offered a policy order at a Monday meeting urging the city to ask its lawyer and law firm in the case to waive a three-year statute of limitations so a lawsuit was possible if the city lost again. But Kelley’s proposal was tabled by vice mayor Henrietta Davis until the next council meeting — Monday, a day too late.

“The city manager can do anything he wants. Even if we passed the order, he could still do anything he wants,” Kelley said Tuesday when reached by telephone. “The policy order was just a suggestion.”

Davis, who was traveling Wednesday in Washington, D.C., did not respond to messages asking for comment on her “charter right” veto of Kelley’s policy order.

The city could still file suit this week, or ask for an extension regardless of the fate of Kelley’s suggestion.

“Having a valid claim is also no guarantee the city would have collected,” Kelley said. “But as far as I can tell, it’s all been derailed.”

Mayor David P. Maher was asked for comment, but mayoral staffer Lee Gianetti referred questions to Healy. Healy did not return a request to comment.

The case

If there was a lawsuit, it would be almost by invitation.

The city hired lawyer Joan A. Lukey to handle Malvina Monteiro v. City of Cambridge, in which Monteiro complained of being fired as executive secretary of the Police Review and Advisory Board by Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr. when he found she was complaining about racial discrimination. The city’s counter complaint: Monteiro got a master’s degree with work done during city business hours, and that the firing came five years after the race complaints. (Lukey had been with law firm Wilmer Hale but, as of June 17, 2008, is working at Ropes & Gray.)

A jury found May 23, 2008, that Healy had retaliated against Monteiro by firing her and awarded the plaintiff just over $1 million in compensatory damages, with an extra $3.5 million in punitive damages due to the city’s conduct.

In June 2008, the city filed papers for post-trial motions, with a hearing following June 19. On April 23, 2009, Judge Bonnie McLeod-Mancu denied the city’s requests, writing in her memorandum that Healy’s actions were a “deliberate, systematic campaign to punish the plaintiff.”

On May 4, 2009, the city’s lawyers moved for a reconsideration of the verdict and the decision on post-trial motions. At this point was the first mention of reducing punitive damages due to Healy being in constant contact with his counsel.

Defending this point in her statement, Lukey wrote: “Far from cavalierly disregarding the rights of Ms. Monteiro, Mr. Healy prudently sought the regular advice of counsel and regularly took into consideration the risk of a retaliation complaint with every decision that he was required to make … Imposing harsh penalties for consultation with counsel and exercising care to avoid engaging in, or being accused of, retaliation against a plaintiff who remains employed is contrary to public policy.”

To this, Monteiro’s lawyer, Ellen Zucker, responded in opposition to the city’s motion for reconsideration: “There is no factual basis whatsoever upon which the court may even consider this ‘advice of counsel’ defense.” Deputy City Solicitor Nancy Glowa was also with Healy to offer advice throughout the trial, Zucker said.

The appeal

A year later, May 20, the judge denied a separate request for a re-hearing. In June, Cambridge filed a notice of appeal in Monteiro v. Cambridge, which took place just weeks ago, May 4, in Boston.

Now, the city has until Monday, three years to the day after the jury awarded Monteiro the $4.5 million in damages, to file a malpractice suit against Lukey and her employer for giving the city manager potentially damaging advice.

“Arguably, we paid good money for that bad advice,” Kelley said. “Arguably, [Lukey] should say, ‘We are willing to be considered potentially liable for that advice for as long as it takes for this case to wind down.’”

Counsel’s actions could also be without fault, Kelley said.

“It might’ve been good advice by her that didn’t have the intended result,” he said. “It’s like if someone asks you if something is good to eat and you say, ‘Yeah, have a taste,’ and they don’t like it. Not everything that has a bad result means you can sue someone else to cover the damages.”

That’s not the way residents speaking during a public comment period saw it. Richard Clarey, an attorney, declaring himself one of the taxpayers “on the hook for a lot of money” to pay off the case, said a recommendation to fire Monteiro in September 2003 while a judge was ordering her initial case to trial was a surprisingly basic error. “A third-year law student wouldn’t advise that,” Clarey said.

“It’s malpractice on the level of leaving a scalpel inside a patient,” resident Charles Teague said.

Ropes & Gray is a 1,000-lawyer law firm with a corporate focus that, over 140 years, has grown to have offices in Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, London, New York, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. Gross revenue was $797 million in 2008, according to Chambers Associate, and lawfirmstats.com said profits per equity partner in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available,  were $1,4 million, placing the firm in the 66th percentile. WilmerHale says it has more than 1,000 lawyers in a dozen cities worldwide.

Lukey was called Wednesday for comment.

“The only thing I do know is that once the statute of limitations closes, it seems pretty unlikely that we can have a discussion about who’s responsible for what,” Kelley said.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.

City faces uncertain fight for Lechmere market; some unsure it will fight

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

The Lechmere T stop could become a public market if Cambridge government fights for it, according to discussion at an April meeting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The plan to build a public market in the proposed Lechmere Square in East Cambridge is not yet out of the question, but the city will have to doggedly negotiate with state transportation officials.

At a Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee meeting April 28, city councillor Craig Kelley acknowledged the council does not have as much clout in these matters as the state Department of Transportation, but said Cambridge will work to make the state aware of residents’ wishes.

“My fear is, once the state and NorthPoint get their respective plans to a certain point, we won’t be able to impact them much,” he said.

Building the market will also depend on the development of NorthPoint, the 43-acre development that will become home to the Lechmere MBTA station and train yard when the stop moves from its current location.

To build the 30-stall, 1920s-style public market in the emptied station space, the city will have to block a plan to expand Monsignor O’Brien Highway. Widening the highway, even by a bit, would render plans for the market unfeasible.

Expanding the highway, however, would give drivers the chance to make a right turn onto First Street, which could ease the flow of traffic down Third Street toward Kendall Square. The highway would narrow again after the turn.

But cutting down on area traffic may not be that simple: As East Cambridge resident John Paul pointed out during the hearing, First and Third streets let out in different areas, meaning many people may keep their current routes to and from Kendall Square through Third Street.

“If that’s the case, it doesn’t really relieve the traffic,” he said. “I’m not advocating increased traffic on Third Street either, but I’m saying if it’s perceived as largely commuter traffic, why not send it further on down to the intersection near the Museum of Science, where there is a lot of room … rather than sending it through city streets, and turning what is an urban residential condition into a suburban superhighway condition?”

With Lechmere Station on the other side of the highway and a wider highway, some commuters would have to cross six lanes of traffic to get to East Cambridge homes and businesses.

Reluctant champion

Heather Hoffman, a Cambridge resident and real estate attorney, suggested those relying on the city to fight for a market and against widening the highway had chosen a reluctant champion. Based on attendance at Green Line Extension meetings, she felt Cambridge’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department was motivating the widening of the highway.

Somerville is against it and has made its concerns known to the Department of Transportation,Hoffman said.

“Somerville doesn’t want to be split in two by a surface highway,” she said. “Somerville is actively working, as I understand, to change the road dramatically. And yet, what Cambridge is insisting on … I was told in no uncertain terms that every bit of this push [to widen the highway] is coming from Cambridge. If Somerville is trying to make this a significantly better road to have in a city, to make it possible for actual humans to cross the road, then what the heck are we doing undoing all of it?”

Somerville wants to “boulevard” the highway — lowering as it passes through the city — and is working with the state on a study to see if it is possible, but results will not be released until 2012.

Further complicating matters is the fact the city’s traffic and pedestrian data come from a study completed nearly eight years ago, and the picture may be significantly different now and when the project is completed. Transportation committee members were also unsure who would build the new Lechmere Station – The MBTA, NorthPoint developers or the city of Cambridge?

Kelley said he will order a request to City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr. to look into contracts with NorthPoint and verify who is responsible for building the station. He also said he will seek updated traffic study numbers, and any decisions about the fate of the area would have to wait a number of weeks until the committee has better information.

This story was produced through the Watchdog New England-Cambridge Day partnership. View the original story on Cambridge Day’s website.

City calls Monteiro case ‘feathers ruffled’ in its appeal

by Rachel Zarrell

Monteiro v. City of Cambridge, a wrongful-termination lawsuit that could cost Cambridge $10 million, returned Wednesday to the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. (Photo: Josh Delsman)

A lengthy lawsuit with a potential $10 million in the balance was shrugged off by a city lawyer as “feathers ruffled, feelings hurt” Wednesday as Monteiro v. City of Cambridge returned to an appeals court in Boston.

In the wrongful termination case, which began a dozen years ago, Malvina Monteiro claims she was wrongfully terminated as executive secretary of the Police Review and Advisory Board by Cambridge City Manager Robert W. Healy Jr. when he found she was complaining about racial discrimination.

City counsel Joan A. Lukey said the city ended Monteiro’s employment after finding out she falsified time sheets to get a master’s degree during work hours. Monteiro’s termination, she argued, came five years after she filed the racial discrimination complaint, “too far out to infer” it was related to the charge. As far as Monteiro’s evidence for retaliation, Lukey claimed these were “feathers ruffled, feelings hurt kind of things” and not substantial enough to be deemed retaliation.

Monteiro’s counsel, Ellen Zucker, responded with an emotional argument: that leading up to Monteiro’s termination, Healy enacted a series of retaliatory measures against her, including stripping her of management duties in selecting members for her board. Healy was not only being dishonest in his actions as Monteiro’s boss, but also lied on the stand during trial, Zucker said.

After a 2008 trial, a Middlesex Superior Court jury awarded Monteiro $4.5 million in damages, $3.5 million of which were punitive damages.

The city appealed upon Healy’s insistence, despite some city councillors advising him otherwise. If the appeal falls in the plaintiff’s favor, the cost to the city could reach $10 million, including $2 million in legal fees and $70,000 a month in interest for the original judgment.

After rejecting the city’s initial appeal, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Bonnie MacLeod-Mancuso wrote in a 2009 decision that the jury had cause to find Healy’s actions “reprehensible.”

Lukey said she expects a decision to be released in the next two to four months.

View the story on Cambridge Day’s website.