, Newburyport, MA

January 27, 2014

COW seeks NRA records

NRA chairman: 'Our finances are absolutely transparent'


---- — NEWBURYPORT — Members of the Committee for an Open Waterfront are using legal muscle to press the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority to produce its financial records for part of the past decade.

NRA officials are responding to the request, but the discord between the two organizations indicates that the next round of discussions on the central waterfront could be imbued with an increasing amount of distrust.

At Wednesday night’s NRA meeting, chairman Tom Salemi reported to fellow members that a representative from the sheriff’s office had dropped off a second letter last week from COW attorney Peter Caruso to produce financial records.

Salemi said Caruso was requesting annual reports of the NRA for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 and “copies of financial reviews or audits for those same years.”

All figures are available to the public, Salemi said last week.

“If anyone is truly interested in obtaining financial information, they wouldn’t need an attorney. All they would need is a pen, a piece of paper and a visit to the Planning Department at City Hall,” he added.

“I believe COW is hoping to use the threat of lawsuits to disrupt the spirit of cooperation between the NRA and the city.”

The NRA receives about $100,000 per year in parking fees. In fiscal 2013, for instance, it received $103,860, according to city officials.

Because of this income, it has been able to hire engineers, design teams and financial consultants to assist it as it moves forward with its vision of how to develop the 4.2 acres on the waterfront that it owns.

The NRA forwarded a plan by Union Studio of Providence to construct three buildings, including condominium units, and an expanded park area on the two parcels it controls.

COW opposes the NRA’s vision and has even developed its own plan. Its recent request for financial records appears to be an attempt to examine the inner workings of the five-member panel.

NRA officials say they will comply with COW’s request.

Salemi said NRA lawyer Carol Powers spoke with Caruso and she is getting him the requested information. He said Powers will also contact the city’s Planning Department so they can begin making copies of NRA minutes.The NRA is a volunteer board with no full-time staff.

“Our attorney will send (Caruso) the audited financial statement once it’s done,” Salemi said, adding that the board works “to comply as quickly as we can” to requests for public documents.

The chairman said that over the past year, “We’ve moved all NRA materials and files to the Planning and Development office at City Hall so they are available to public view.”

Elizabeth Heath, president of COW, said the organization has asked for documents in the past but without success.

“We’re looking for the income and expenditures,” Heath said. “These are public documents and they should be available for public review.”

Last week, Salemi responded to this newspaper’s request for financial figures over the last three years, saying “our finances are absolutely transparent.”

Revenue (mostly from parking) was as follows: 2011, $48,347; 2012, $105,500 (does not include reimbursement from MassDevelopment for environmental work done years earlier); 2013, $77,359.

(Revenue figures in this story differ because the city-supplied figure was for fiscal 2013, and the NRA figure is for calendar 2013).

Expenses include the following:

Barry Abramson, a consultant: 2011, $24,900; 2012, $40,300; 2013, $29,800.

Union Studio, design firm (most Union fees were paid by MassDevelopment, per an agreement): 2011, 0; 2012, $990; 2013, $1,200;

GZA engineering firm (borings): 2013, $41,500 (He said NRA will be reimbursed about $16,000).

City of Newburyport: $25,000 to help pay for bulkhead.

MassDevelopment: 2011, 0; 2012, $12,500 (represents buy-in; city also paid $12,500); 2013, 0.