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Globe Editorial

Advisory needn't mean opaque

March 10, 2009
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NOTHING SHORT of a court date is likely to resolve the conflicted identities of Boston's mayor-appointed neighborhood task forces, which work in the gray area between good citizenship and lack of accountability.

The latest battleground is the Boston College Task Force, which advises the mayor on BC's expansion plans. The son of former task force member John Bruno has a full four-year scholarship to BC. Task force member Denis Minihane leases office space to BC. Yet members have operated without regard to the state's conflict of interest law.

Why the 13-member board voted recently to recommend construction of a controversial dormitory on Lake Street - after rejecting that portion of the plan just a few months earlier - is also unknown, because the members hold some of their meetings in private and do not make minutes available.

The Menino administration defends the practice on the grounds that the task forces are not official deliberative bodies created by statute but merely a way to obtain informal advice from interested neighbors on all sides of an issue. But Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley saw it differently in 2007, when he called out a similar task force mulling Harvard's expansion in Allston. Conley told it to post the meetings, conduct them in public and distribute minutes.

State ethics laws specify that unpaid volunteers can be defined for some purposes as "municipal employees." Though the definitions are fuzzy, citizens appointed by the mayor to make recommendations on policy issues affecting the city should conduct their business in the open and disclose potential conflicts of interest.

Yet such principles are routinely ignored. Conley should press his case with a judge. If nothing else, some clarity on the status of mayoral task forces might emerge.

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