It’s really not a huge surprise to us. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is up to shenanigans and in need of reform. Following is a press release from Mayor Walsh:
Today Mayor Martin J. Walsh released the findings of a performance review of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Commissioned by Mayor Walsh in March, the audit evaluates the BRA’s and the Economic Development Industrial Corporation’s (EDIC) adherence to internal policies, procedures, and protocols. The two agencies, which merged operationally in 1995, are charged with planning and economic development efforts for the City of Boston. The audit was conducted by KPMG.
The review uncovered several facets of the BRA’s structure and operations that are in dire need of reform. While the BRA and EDIC should ideally function as a unified entity, in practice their operations have remained largely separate in the nearly 20 years since they merged. A single board of directors oversees the activities of both entities. However, actions taken by the board on BRA matters are not binding on the EDIC, and vice versa. BRA and EDIC employees are also often physically located apart from one another, with BRA staff primarily housed at City Hall and EDIC staff split between offices at Hawkins Street and in the Boston Marine Industrial Park. Complicating matters further is the fact that the employees are governed by different payroll and benefit systems.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to make the Boston Redevelopment Authority a more modern, nimble, transparent, and responsive agency,” Mayor Walsh said. “This report lays the groundwork for improvements that have already begun and will continue to unfold. There are certain areas within the organization that we need to take a closer look at. However, it’s clear that development is booming in Boston, and I’m hopeful that reforming the BRA will help to make our city an even more attractive place to do business.”
Under the umbrella of the BRA and EDIC are several other departments, programs, and non-profit entities that function with varying degrees of oversight from the agency’s management and board. The Office of Jobs and Community Services, ReadBoston and WriteBoston, and Youth Opportunities Unlimited, for example, have historically all operated with a high level of autonomy but technically are required to report the BRA’s director and board.
The report encourages leadership to “consider all activities currently under the purview of the BRA/EDIC to determine whether such activities are consistent with the mission of the organization or are better situated in other parts of the City.”
Due largely to a lack of integration between departments, the BRA is frequently perceived as less efficient, responsive, and accountable to the public than it should be.
To begin correcting internal issues and the external perception of the agency, auditors from KPMG suggested, “leadership should consider having not only a Director of the BRA who can ensure that the mission is defined and adhered to but also a ‘chief operating officer’ who would be responsible for day to day operations of the organization consistent with the implementation of that mission.”
The report goes on to highlight insufficient and disjointed compliance protocols as a major shortcoming of the BRA. Auditors were not able to identify a list of compliance requirements, and while a compliance department has existed since 2004, its effectiveness has been limited. Compliance is currently unable to systematically track commitments made by developers, EDIC lease and equity payments, and deed restrictions. A lack of internal project naming conventions “makes it extremely difficult to research information on prior agreements,” according to the report.
As part of the BRA’s development review process, developer commitments are typically tied to the issuance of a building permit from the City’s Inspectional Services Department. Yet, there is currently no standard process for ensuring that this information is shared between the two agencies.
The BRA will complete a thorough internal review of previous commitments and lease agreements to determine how much money may be owed to the agency and the City.
The BRA lacks a centralized digital document repository, and instead maintains many critical documents in paper form. Asset management is also problematic, as the BRA has no formal strategy for overseeing or ensuring optimal value for the properties it owns. Many leases have expired or been renegotiated without new leases being prepared or executed, and there is no written policy for evicting a tenant that is not current on rent.
Mayor Walsh has repeatedly stated the need to improve transparency, efficiency, and fairness at the agency. The audit’s findings provide the Mayor with a foundation of information that will be used to guide improvements at the BRA.
The pro bono review was intended to provide a high-level evaluation of the agency’s functions with respect to its core mission – managing citywide and neighborhood planning initiatives and reviewing development projects. KPMG was not tasked with providing recommendations for implementing specific reforms.
As a first step, the BRA will hire an outside firm to complete a thorough review of the agency’s planning department. Planners at the BRA, working hand-in-hand with the community, local institutions, and other city agencies, help to shape the long-term development vision for Boston and its neighborhoods. The department has been criticized in the past for needing to be more predictable and transparent with its decision making. A focused, independent review of its procedures and protocols will help identify areas for improvement.
“The report raises many serious and troubling concerns about how the organization has operated over the years,” said Brian Golden, Acting Director of the BRA. “We embrace these findings. This is an opportunity to strengthen the way we do business so that we’re able to serve the public in a more efficient, accountable, and transparent manner. I want to thank KPMG, and Shawn Warren in particular, for their hard work to help us begin to chart a course for the new BRA.”
Acting Director Golden and members of the BRA’s leadership team – which includes a new chief of staff (Heather Campisano), and a new director of development review and policy (Erico Lopez) – have already begun to institute reforms to improve the BRA’s operations. Recent changes to vacation, sick leave, and compensatory time policies for employees will help the agency save funding. The human resources division is now in the process of implementing performance evaluations for all employees and management training for senior staff.
Under the leadership of a new chief information officer (Michael O’Shea), several technology solutions have been implemented or are underway to increase accessibility and transparency. BRA board meeting documents and awarded bids and contracts are now easier to access on the BRA’s new website. In the near future, developers will be able to submit their documents online rather than in paper. Standard software, hardware, and a new work order management system to track IT service requests have been introduced. The CIO is also actively seeking to hire a database administrator and to purchase a cloud-based digital asset management tool to help centralize access to information.
To increase accountability for affordable housing commitments made by developers, the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development will now oversee the Inclusionary Development Policy. The BRA previously shared the responsibility for administering the program.
In May, Mayor Walsh appointed Bryan Glascock to be the BRA’s senior adviser for regulatory reform. In this newly-created role, Glascock will help streamline and revamp the City’s complex zoning and permitting process.
The full audit is available at www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org.