Zeroing in on the BRA

The Boston Redevelopment Authority isn’t easy to write about. The agency wears so many hats (regulator, landlord, banker, developer) and is involved in so many things (city planning, real estate, economic development, housing, and job training) that reporters tend to get overwhelmed and give up.

I became intrigued with the BRA during last fall’s mayoral race. Mayor Thomas Menino’s opponents talked about the agency as if it were riddled with conflicts of interest and the cause of many of the city’s problems. I associated the BRA with downtown development deals but discovered its portfolio was much, much larger. When Menino wanted to give a loan to the shuttered Bay State Banner, for example, a BRA affiliate I had never heard of quickly stepped up and delivered a $200,000 loan.

Jack Sullivan and I started looking at the BRA toward the end of the mayoral campaign. We spent a lot of time talking to people, studying the agency’s finances, and poring over deeds. The upshot is the special report on the BRA in this issue. It focuses primarily on two aspects of the agency that intrigued us: A real estate policy that turned condo developments into never-ending money machines and an affordable housing program that seemed to be heavily populated by city workers.

The special report is by no means an exhaustive look at the BRA. In fact, we often came across something intriguing and had to put it aside because we were running out of time. We also struggled to obtain information from BRA officials right up until our deadline.

But the special report is a good example of what we are trying to do at CommonWealth. We focus on public policy issues important to working people that are ignored by the mainstream media because they are too complicated or too time-consuming to investigate. We also zero in on agencies or programs subject to little or no oversight. The BRA fit both priorities perfectly.

The same could be said of the feature story by Michael Jonas on a pension perk that refuses to go away. State employees who have 20 years of service and get fired or see their jobs eliminated are entitled to start receiving a generous “termination” pension immediately instead of waiting until age 55. Michael has written about this questionable perk before, but he goes at it again because it somehow got overlooked during the passage of a pension reform law last year.

We also have a fascinating What Works story about electronic medical records from Alison Lobron and a report on the board overseeing the state’s consolidated transportation system from Gabrielle Gurley. Our Conversation features a chat with Margaret Marshall, the charming and elegant chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. I came away impressed with her, but there’s no question she speaks a different language from the lawmakers on Beacon Hill, which may explain why her push for more authority over the court budget has met with mixed success.

With his forceful argument that the state needs to scale back its efforts to extend health insurance to everyone, State Treasurer Tim Cahill made me appreciate his presence in the governor’s race as an independent. His fiscal caution and his deep knowledge of budget issues should make him an interesting candidate for these times.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of what’s in this issue, but I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that its publication coincides with the debut of our new magazine website (commonwealthmagazine.org). The online magazine will allow us to continue our reporting and commentary between print issues. It will also make it easier to bring you into the debates and conversations prompted by our coverage.

So please check our new offerings online. These days it’s rare for a media outlet to offer you more rather than less.

BRUCE MOHL, EDITOR