GALVIN: MAKE BENEFIT DISTRICTS SUBJECT TO PUBLIC RECORDS LAW
By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 26, 2018....Before lawmakers legalize community benefit districts that would have the power to demand fees from property owners to pay for local improvements, they should ensure those entities are subject to the public records law, Secretary of State William Galvin wrote to a top House official on Wednesday.
The House and Senate have already passed the bill, but amid a flurry of opposition from liberals and conservatives, the House has yet to send the bill to the Senate for final enactment, frustrating supporters with less than a week left of formal sessions. Similar bills have reached Gov. Baker's desk in prior years, but the governor opposed them.
"It's similar to how it's happened the past two sessions where you have outside groups reaching out in opposition before doing their homework at the very last minute and unfortunately there's a lot of misinformation out there," bill sponsor Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, told the News Service.
Crighton said he believes a response he gave to Galvin's office on Wednesday is "going to satisfy any concerns he has" about public records.
The legislative language was the result of negotiations with Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash, a member of Baker's Cabinet. Asked if based on Ash's involvement he thinks the governor will sign the bill (H 4546), Crighton said, "That's my understanding but I respect the governor's position," and Crighton said he is sure the governor will review whatever reaches his desk.
"We came to an agreement on a compromise bill and when it gets to the governor's desk we'll see what the governor wants to do with it," Ash told the News Service on Thursday. He said, "It's not our general policy to talk about signing things before it gets to the governor's desk, so there's always a last review of all the items that come along."
Ash said he supports the latest version of the bill after opposing a prior iteration. The new version has greater protections for elderly residents and small property owners, and it requires more transparency by the districts.
Baker vetoed a similar measure last session, saying the fees it would establish are "the functional equivalent of new property taxes."
Galvin, a Brighton Democrat, said that community benefit districts (CBDs), which would be granted the power to impose fees on properties for improvements within their neighborhood, should be subjected to the type of scrutiny the public can apply to city halls.
"As the law's main purpose is to promote the enhancement of municipal centers and public spaces, one would think that any activities or processes carried out by these corporations would be subject to public records oversight established in Chapter 66 of the General Laws, yet no such provisions exist," Galvin wrote to House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez. "It is very troubling to imagine granting any entity in a city or town the power to impose taxes, enter into agreement to provide transit or sanitation services, maintain public spaces, or buy and sell real property without any public accountability."
In a response to Galvin, Crighton said the non-profit entities administering the districts would need to open their books to participating property owners and he pointed out the distinction between a non-profit and a government agency.
"Also, public records are for municipal entities. A CBD is a 501c3 charity, not a municipal entity, it doesn't receive public funding or tax revenue, and is not subject to public records law," Crighton wrote. Crighton also said the fee would not be a tax but rather an assessment, and if a municipality was tasked with collecting it, the city or town could charge the CBD for that service.
Before a community benefit district could be established under the bill, it would need approval from the city council or town meeting, which have to adhere to public records laws as well as open meeting laws.
Galvin recommended lawmakers amend the bill to "ensure that any and all records arising from the creation and activity of community benefit district corporations be considered fully subject to the state's public records law."
A Brighton Democrat, Galvin will face a primary challenge in his re-election bid this September from Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim. Asked whether Crighton's response satisfied Galvin's concerns, a spokeswoman said officials in the secretary of state's office are "still actively reviewing the materials that have been submitted to us."
In a phone interview, Crighton said there are no specific plans underway at this point to establish a community benefit district in his North Shore district, but he said local officials are eager for the ability to do that.
The bill passed the House 149-2 in May and passed the Senate 22-15 last week. Since then, Democrat Reps. Denise Provost, of Somerville, Michelle DuBois, of Brockton, and Mike Connolly, of Cambridge, have kept watch over the chamber to ensure the bill does not pass during an informal session. The House didn't take it up when it met in a formal session on Wednesday and the House is meeting in an informal session on Thursday.
Groups spanning the ideological spectrum -- from the anti-eviction group City Life/Vida Urbana to Citizens for Limited Taxation -- issued a statement Wednesday opposing the legislation, calling it "essentially taxation without representation."
"The bill would impose an additional financial burden on residents to pay for services beyond those historically provided by the state and municipality, thereby essentially creating a wholly new tier of government at the neighborhood level, without any mechanisms for accountability," said the statement, which also expressed concern that there is no provision for compliance with prevailing wage laws.
Several mayors and chambers of commerce support the legislation, as does the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, which is led by the Conservation Law Foundation, Citizens Housing and Planning Association, and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.
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