Editorial: Edwards is right in pushing ZBA reform

The fallout from the bribery scandal involving the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal continues this week. John Lynch, the former city official who admitted to accepting $50,000 in bribes from an associate to influence a ZBA member, has pled guilty to his crime, and the federal investigation targeting potential corruption at this critically important City Hall permitting panel is ongoing.

It remains unclear if more indictments could follow, but US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office has made it clear: The case file remains opens.

It’s all deeply troubling. But from this crisis may come much-needed reform. We’ve already heard constructive ideas from Council President Andrea Campbell – who wants the city to create a permanent inspector general to root out misdeeds in city government.

Now, this week, East Boston’s Councillor Lydia Edwards unveiled her own proposal that would “modernize and reform” the ZBA.

“These changes protect against conflicts of interest, improve standards of review, ensure critical perspectives of tenants, environmental protections are represented, and [the changes] modernize the Zoning Board of Appeal by providing 21st-century transparency for all residents,” Edwards said.

Asked for comment, Walsh spokesperson Sam Ormsby said: “These issues are at the center of the mayor’s outside review of the [ZBA]. He will act swiftly on their recommendations and we welcome Councillor Edwards’s collaboration as we move forward.”

One of the common-sense provisions from Edwards is this one: “Real estate interests would be removed from the board and no named organizations or interests would have a permanent seat. Members and alternate members (7 each) of the ZBA would represent perspectives from affordable housing, civil rights and fair housing, environmental protection and climate change, urban planning, homeowners, renters, and expertise in zoning and the general laws.”

The Edwards proposal would also prohibit ZBA staff members from “engaging in private business” in real estate “functions,” including other “permitting, planning or development.”

This last provision could prove to be a thorny one. It’s hard to imagine a person living and working in Boston who won’t have some need to conduct private business in real estate at some point. Still, while the exact language may need to be formulated differently, Edwards is on the right path here.

Edwards, who once led the city’s office of Housing Stability before joining the council, also wants new safeguards for tenants who are facing displacement from projects coming before the ZBA. Her proposal “would require appellants seeking a variance for occupied or recently occupied structures to submit plans to mitigate displacement and to provide information about any recent evictions.”

That would be useful information and, perhaps, give some pause to overly aggressive developers who want to clear out lower-income residents. It might at least prompt them to resolve old disputes amicably before bringing their new projects before city review.

Boston continues to boom and new projects are constantly streaming into the pipeline. In the near-term, the cloud over the ZBA has not prevented the board from convening and voting. Nor should it.

While the city waits for an official report from the law firm Walsh hired to dig deeper into the ZBA mess, it makes sense to begin the legislative process. Councillor Edwards has laid out a good start— and the cooperative tone indicated in the mayor’s response is encouraging.

– Bill Forry