, Newburyport, MA

February 5, 2013

NRA accused of closed talks

Open waterfront backers call for more open process


---- — NEWBURYPORT — A lawyer representing the Committee for an Open Waterfront, Inc., has written to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority accusing the group of “evident violations of the (state) Open Meeting Law.”

Mark Peters, with the Boston firm of Rubin and Rudman, LLP, threatened to take the concern to state officials in his letter.

“If the Authority declines to do so (desist from secret deliberations), the committee will bring the matter to the attention of the attorney general of the commonwealth and will request her intervention and investigation,” the Jan. 28 letter reads.

The NRA owns 4.2 acres on the riverfront, and authority members are pursuing a tentative plan to develop two commercial buildings with shops and condominium units in order to generate money to expand and maintain more park space.

The NRA has been meeting regularly in open session on this matter for close to a year, but COW members allege that NRA members also get together privately to discuss future plans.

The letter quoted an instance when NRA officials purportedly acknowledged meeting “behind the scenes” on Jan. 16, but no confirmation of that accusation could be made yesterday.

James Shanley, chairman of the NRA, was not available for comment yesterday. And it wasn’t clear whether he had received the communication. The letter was mailed to the NRA at City Hall, according to COW members.

Tom Salemi, an NRA member who often handles press inquiries, said, “We can’t comment on a letter we haven’t seen yet. But we personally don’t see how a letter like this is consistent with the spirit of compromise that emerged from last week’s public meeting.”

Salemi was referring to an NRA meeting last week at which residents were encouraged to ask questions and express their thoughts on the NRA’s tentative vision. Close to 100 attended the session. and almost a score spoke publicly. Opinions were mixed on the merits of creating the two commercial structures.

The keynote speaker at the meeting was Mayor Donna Holaday, who opened the session with a call for cooperation. Holaday could not be reached for comment yesterday regarding the letter written on behalf of COW.

In his letter to the NRA, Peters said, “The authority has been engaged for many months now in the conceptualization of and planning for the ‘development’ of the Newburyport waterfront. It has done so with almost no public discussion or disclosure of the options, opportunities, possibilities and criteria that it must have considered ... in the course of making the decisions that have since given birth to the authority’s preferred development plan.

“To consider such matters behind closed doors because the authority takes the view that it ‘can talk more freely when the public is not present’ is to transgress in the most flagrant way against both the letter and the spirit of the open meeting law.”

Elizabeth Heath, who leads the COW organization, yesterday said she didn’t know if the letter had been received by NRA members. The letter did not specify when the purported closed meetings were held.

“It was mailed in time for the Wednesday meeting, but it was not mentioned at the meeting itself,” Heath said of the letter.

Heath said she was pleased that residents got to address city officials and ask questions at Wednesday’s session.

“That was the first time it was allowed to happen,” she said.

The NRA has been working with MassDevelopment, a quasi-state agency based in Boston, and Union Studio, an architectural-consulting firm in Providence.

NRA officials say one of their next steps is to create a request for proposals for a commercial development that would go to developers and bankers. That document is still being developed.