Walsh looks to get past zoning board scandal

Will changes be enough to revamp an archaic body?

BOSTON MAYOR MARTY WALSH signed an executive order Monday to limit potential conflicts of interest on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal, an effort to put behind him a scandal that laid bare the problems that critics say have long plagued the panel charged with approving everything from backyard decks to housing development plans.

New rules issued by Walsh forbid members of the seven-person board from voting on matters in which they have held financial interests in the past five years. Walsh says the new requirements are stricter than those outlined in state ethics laws. The State Ethics Commission offers guidance to zoning board members that has not been updated since 1987.

ZBA members will also have to submit to annual financial disclosures and periodic ethics training.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards plans to hold a hearing later today on a home rule petition that would remake the zoning board from the ground up — ending the designated slots for those in real estate and development, and bringing urban planners, renters, and housing advocates as members of the board. This more extensive overhaul would require approval from the Legislature.

“The policies that shape the ZBA are 65 years old,” Edwards said on Monday. “They come from a time when the conventional wisdom valued bulldozers as an economic development strategy.”

According to State House News Service, Walsh also plans to file legislation to change the board’s membership “to ensure that it is reflective of our neighborhoods and their concerns.”

The catalyst for reform is the federal investigation into longtime CIty Hall aide John Lynch, former assistant director of real estate at the Economic Development Corporation. Lynch pleaded guilty to accepting $50,000 in 2018 to help a real estate developer get a permit extension through a vote from an unnamed member of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal, and will serve 40 months in jail.

William “Buddy” Christopher, a special advisor to the mayor who had formerly run the city’s Inspectional Services Division, stepped down from his job because his son was involved with the South Boston project the bribes reportedly concerned.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

An independent audit commissioned by the mayor did not reveal a wider conspiracy among ZBA members, but it did unmask a federal inquiry into real estate dealings tied to former ZBA member Craig Galvin — who resigned shortly after Lynch’s guilty plea in September.

Federal prosecutors never said how Lynch influenced the board to revive a project that was essentially dead.