State inspector general urges Boston to seek better deal from Red Sox in 2013; Boston City Council plans to hold a hearing

Reacting to a report by the Initiative for Investigative Reporting, the state inspector general is demanding a better financial arrangement between the city of Boston and the Red Sox for game-day rights to Yawkey Way and Van Ness Street, and for the air rights over the Green Monster seats, The Boston Globe reports.

The sweetheart deal that put about $45 million in revenue in the Sox coffers in exchange for an average of $186,000 a year in lease fees to the city caught the attention of Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan after The Initiative for Investigative Reporting published a story on the agreement last November.

Sullivan urged city officials to determine how much money the Red Sox have made using public property since 2003, when the team signed a relatively low-cost lease for the streets. The city should negotiate a better deal, he wrote.

“Yawkey Way and Lansdowne Street are public property,’’ Sullivan said yesterday in an e-mail to the Globe. “The public should receive fair market value for the use of its property.’’

The current arrangement is up for renegotiation after the 2013 baseball season. The Boston City Council will hold a public hearing on the lease between the city and the Red Sox this Wednesday (February 29, 2012).

Read the full Globe account here.

Boston Globe Editorial Takes a Swing at BRA-Red Sox Deal

The Boston Globe published an editorial today on the Initiative for Investigative Reporting’s recent story that highlighted a deal between Red Sox management and the Boston Redevelopment Authority that allows for the closure of public streets during Red Sox games.

Here’s a teaser:

The bottom line is that the city gave away control of public streets – and allowed the banishment of private vendors – without seeking much in return. Generous lease terms that the city deemed seemed appropriate nine years ago are no longer defensible now.

Read the full editorial: Drive harder bargain with Sox

City plans crackdown on ‘problem properties’; owners facing fines

47-49 Savin Hill Ave: Six-family house has been source of concern in Savin Hill. (Photo Credit: Dorchester Reporter)

By Stephen Kurkjian and Rachel Zarrell

When 19-year-old Derek Matulina was shot to death at the Savin Hill MBTA station on May 7, his father instinctively knew the house where the alleged killer, Nhu Ahn Nguyencq, was initially reported to have fled after the shooting.

Having lived in Savin Hill for over a decade, Robert Matulina, now 61, remembered the house as an eyesore even before he left the neighborhood 10 years ago. While police now doubt the initial media accounts that the house had been a hiding place for the alleged killer and, possibly, witnesses to the crime, it was not surprising that those familiar with the neighborhood would find such reports credible.

The three-decker at 47-49 Savin Hill Ave. has long been in physical decline, and community and City Hall tolerance to that decline had allowed the six-family house to become a hang-out for neighborhood toughs, if not a breeding ground for crime.

If it could happen at such a highly-visible address on Savin Hill’s main road, then the entire neighborhood was vulnerable. That was the message that Robert Matulina as well as Derek’s sister, Leah Murphy Bailly, underscored at a neighborhood meeting that they attended just a few days after Derek’s murder. The meeting— held at the Cristo Rey school building — drew an estimated 300 people, including several of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s closest advisers. And spurred by that meeting’s message, the city has established an initiative to strike at the nagging problem of neighborhood crime by focusing on the properties that generate the most police 911 calls.

In the coming days, the administration intends to begin directing owners of properties that have been responsible for eight or more police calls in the past year to take steps toward solving the problems by warning or evicting the troublemakers. If they fail to take action, the owners will face fines themselves.

At the outset, the landlords will be contacted by the city and told of the high number of crimes that have taken place at the residences. The landlords will be told that if they don’t participate in an action plan to address the problem immediately, the city will begin to assess fines against them under a new municipal ordinance that Menino submitted to the Boston City Council.

Although many details of the effort are still be worked out – it likely will take statutory changes to make the job of evicting problem tenants easier – the initiative of forcing landlords to get more involved in policing their tenants’ behavior is a good one, city officials said.

“The mayor was very focused on this right from the start, from the weekend that the shooting took place,” said Michael Kineavy, Menino’s chief of policy and planning who is overseeing a multi-agency task force aimed at addressing the problem. “He impressed on us on the need for doing things differently. Let the police do their work there first, but once they’re done, let’s focus on what the other agencies can do with the police department to stop future problems from occurring” at the properties.

This is not the first time that City Hall has sought to crack down on properties that had become crime centers in Boston. For ten years, beginning under Mayor Raymond Flynn and continuing through Menino’s administration, the city worked with federal law enforcement and housing authorities to crack down on residences that had been turned into drug dens. About 250 such properties were seized and turned into affordable housing sites under the program, but the effort ended about 10 years ago when the federal funds dried up.

But the killing in Savin Hill moved Menino to call on his inner circle to come up with a new program. An initial review of the database on Boston Police Department 911 calls shows there is no shortage of problem properties – and property owners – to concentrate on. In Dorchester and Mattapan alone, about a dozen single or multiple-family residences were found to have generated more than ten police calls, many of them involving serious crime such as gun violence, drug dealing, and assault and battery, in the last year ending May 25.

Bringing the weight of City Hall on landlords to pay more attention to attacking the problem of crime at their properties may be the right approach. Several landlords contacted in recent days by the Dorchester Reporter said they intended to address the problem immediately, while others said they had already begun eviction proceedings against unruly tenants.

Margarita Ortiz, who owns a three-decker on Draper Street in Dorchester, was contacted by the city concerning the multiple number of times that police had been summoned there. Agreeing that the property was “run-down,” she blamed the calls on a person who often visits one of her tenants. The city official “told me about what I have to do with the problems,” Ortiz said.

James Hatfield, who owns an apartment building on Pearl Street in Dorchester, said that when the city contacted him about the high number of incidents at his property, he was already in the process of trying to remove his problem tenant.

“They contacted me about a month ago, told me there were some problems over there,” Hatfield said. “I told them at the time I basically had resolved [them]; there were a couple of problem tenants in the building and basically I had already gotten them out by the time police had called me.”

Still, the ambitious goal of forcing landlords to join the front-line in the effort to reduce crime faces legal impediments. Problem tenants, even those who have been arrested for crimes, have rights in Massachusetts housing courts that make evicting them a long, arduous process.

Richard J. Henken, president of Schochet Associates, which owns or manages about 30 apartment buildings in New England, a third of them located in Boston, said the city’s initiative to assess fines on those landlords whose properties are responsible for multiple police calls should involve a balanced approach.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily fair that all of the responsibility be brought to bear directly on the landlord, especially where there are situations where the landlord is making good faith efforts to deal with the troubled residents, the problem residents,” Henken said. “To the extent that the landlord can claim that he or she has been working in good faith to ameliorate the problem, either through eviction proceedings or through resistance to cease and desist from the behavior that’s causing the problems.”

At the same time, Henken said, the city is justified in assessing fines against absentee landlords who are not responding responsibly to crime that may be occurring at their properties. “In a situation where a landlord is not paying attention to this stuff, or a landlord has not taken action to keep their property in good shape, or they haven’t taken action to make sure folks are abiding by the rules and the laws – clearly for those folks, there’s no excuse.”

“But …,” Henken added, “for the vast majority of the landlords that I think you could potentially talk to, we all understand that it’s in our best interest as landlords to not have eight police calls, to not have a small number of residents who are ruining the living environment for the rest of the residents. We want the same thing the city does, it’s just a question of how you do it.”

While the Problem Property Task Force is intent on targeting those properties that have been responsible for multiple police calls, left unaddressed are the numerous others – often in the same neighborhood – that, while in rundown conditions or even abandoned, have not yet become crime centers.

Take 14 Ditson St. in the Fields Corner neighborhood. The three-decker has not prompted any police calls, but it has been boarded up since being hit by a fire several years ago. Neighborhood residents were so concerned with its blighted condition that they called a neighborhood meeting that was attended by Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.

While he sympathized with residents’ concerns, Conley reminded those assembled at a neighborhood meeting in late April that the city could only act to take control of the property if it were deemed a public health menace or if the owners failed to pay their property taxes.

Barry Mullen-Barry, a long-time Dorchester affordable housing advocate, expressed frustration that the Ditson Street address would not be covered by the Menino Administration’s initiative on problem properties. “It’s only a matter of time before squatters set in or it becomes a drug den, or even worse,” Mullen-Barry said. “Why can’t something be done before police need to be called?”

That sentiment was echoed by Robert Matulina, a retired electrician now living in Florida, whose son’s death led to the initiative. “I saw it so often during Derek’s life – kids with no jobs start hanging out at some property that’s been abandoned or become rundown,” he said. “And inevitably, before long, the kids start abusing the property, abusing the neighbors, abusing the entire neighborhood.”

Next: A closer look at some of Dorchester and Mattapan’s busiest addresses for police activity.

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

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.


It’s hit or miss at city-run centers; Despite calls for reform, some still get little use

The Cleveland Community Center sat empty on a recent weekday afternoon. Photo by Stephen Kurkjian

By Stephen Kurkjian, Rachel Zarrell, and Gal Tziperman Lotan, Special To The Reporter

Moments after the buzzer sounded ending classes for the day, a dozen Harbor Middle School students burst through the doors connecting the Fields Corner school to the Cleveland Community Center, one of 38 such facilities established by the city to provide a variety of after-school athletic, arts, and tutoring programs for kids just like them. The youths seemed raring to go.

But the Cleveland, with no educational or arts programs in place, was hardly ready for them. So the students rushed over to the back corner of the room, pulling money out of their pockets, and stopped at the vending machines.  After they had bought their fill of snacks and soda, they exited as boisterously as they had entered, leaving the center’s large recreation room empty and in silence, save for the sounds from a courtroom drama droning from a wide-screen television on the wall.

Seven years after the Menino administration pledged widespread reforms in the wake of a scathing management report that had found weak leadership throughout Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) and inadequate levels of programming at the facilities, improvements at many of the community centers remain a case of promises unmet.

Although centers in some neighborhoods are meeting the primary goals of providing an enriching, safe environment for children outside of school time, as well as active social programs for adults in the community, a majority of the centers, including two of the four that are located in Dorchester, are falling short of the mark articulated just last month by their director.