Reforms coming to Zoning Board of Appeal
Mayor Martin J. Walsh today signed an Executive Order to establish new, rigorous ethical standards for the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) and institute strong policies and procedures that will bring a significantly increased level of transparency, accountability and integrity to the ZBA. These important changes are informed, in part, by the findings of the Sullivan & Worcester report and initiate both immediate and long-term changes needed to ensure that best practices, strong internal protocols and policies are in place at the ZBA.
"The ZBA plays a critical role for our city, but to be effective in this role and maintain public confidence, the board must operate at the highest standards of professionalism, ethics, and accessibility," said Mayor Walsh. "The changes we are making today will go further than state ethics laws that currently govern the board and its members, modernize the function of the board to make it more accessible and transparent to the public, and I will file legislation to change the membership of the board to ensure that it is reflective of our neighborhoods and their concerns. I want to assure the residents of Boston that they can have confidence in the ZBA and that we will continue to protect what we love about our neighborhoods as we grow and evolve as a city."
Through these reforms, Mayor Walsh is spearheading the changes necessary to strengthen public confidence in the board, improve its functions and efficiencies, and create a more understandable and transparent process. The changes will include strict standards around conflict of interest, financial and ethical disclosures for both board members and certain applicants seeking project approvals, rules governing business dealings before, during and after projects are considered and approved, enhanced ethical training for board members, as well as technological improvements to bring greater access to the board and its process for the public.
Specifically, the Executive Order bolsters the ethics and transparency expectations of its board members by implementing new disclosure requirements, prohibiting members from participating in any project in which they have an interest and prohibiting members from having any subsequent business dealings with any project on which they voted. In addition, the order establishes new standards for board members, requiring each member to submit annual statements of financial interest and undergo comprehensive ethics training.
In addition, because changes to the Zoning Board of Appeal require state approval, Mayor Walsh continues to work with Councilor Lydia Edwards to craft a home rule petition to the Massachusetts state legislature to change the composition of the board to bring added perspective and expertise.
"It is critical that residents trust and have full and indiscriminate access to 21st century government. Today's executive order takes critical steps by modernizing the Zoning Board of Appeal, promoting transparency and strengthening ethical standards," said Councilor Lydia Edwards. "As the council moves forward with legislation regarding the Board of Appeal, I look forward to continued partnership with Mayor Walsh."
In addressing the need to modernize the functionality and efficiency of the Board, the Executive Order introduces for the first time electronic submissions in order to streamline operations, including enabling online applications and payments for permits and petitions, electronic submission of plans, email notification of hearings, deferrals and new hearing dates, online subscription list for interested residents and parties, and a search database of all pending applications and decided petitions.
As part of the Mayor's commitment to making the ZBA more accessible to residents, the Executive Order calls for the designation of an ombudsperson to notify the public of their rights during and outside of ZBA meetings and guide residents or appellants through basic procedural steps of appeal. In addition, the Board will be required to work with the Mayor's Office of Language and Communications Access to ensure the provision of translation services is available to residents.
The reforms announced today build on steps that Mayor Walsh took immediately after learning about the allegations of bribery that are currently under investigation, which include ordering a comprehensive, independent review of the practices and procedures of the Zoning Board of Appeal, and a separate review conducted by Attorney Brian Kelly to focus on allegations regarding a specific project.