Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons
As noted on several past occasions, we’ve neither the time nor resources to relentlessly remind Somerville readers about the unsavory practices afoot in their ostensibly post-hipster hamlet. For example, it would take far too much time for us to constantly warn homeowners in that city about buildings that were approved under an office run by administrators lacking state certification, or of the shady characters who’ve been permitted to bend zoning regulations from Assembly Square to Magoun Square.
Fortunately, the Somerville Journal and its Wicked Local online portal are on the job. In the past few weeks, reporters there delivered a harrowing look at the battle over skyrocketing property taxes in Somerville, then followed up with an accounting of more seemingly sketchy business as usual. On the former note, we’d like to remind those clamoring for explanations of taxation rates and municipal splurging – and who are wrestling with city spokespeople trying to gloss over recent news – that the Somerville budget for FY14 proposes spending $269,662 on communications, which is an increase of more than 300 percent from FY13.
In the interest of understanding the city’s public relations formula, thanks to members of the Somerville Community Access Project (CAP) and other disability advocate groups, we may have our most intimate glance yet at the media operation fueled by these expanding budgets. Starting in 2012, Somerville Voices blogger Barry Rafkind began seeking internal emails stemming from a dust-up he and other local activists had with the administration of Mayor Joe Curtatone over human rights issues including the accessibility of doorways at the Armory building. From there, as watchdogs have increasingly discovered through uncovered email exchanges, the Rafkind rift got even nastier.
After requesting and receiving an initial deluge of documents from the city, Rafkind and his allies zeroed in on a specific set of 50 emails “sent in the spring of 2012 by Mayor Curtatone, Executive staff, Law Department, Communications Department, and the Somerville Commissions Director within the Health Department.” What ensued was a dizzying exchange, between July and October of last year, in which CAP organizer Eileen Feldman formally attempted, with minimal success, to secure administration correspondence outlining a city plot against activists.
Some of the emails requested by Feldman, and that officials handed over last year with little or no black lines covering key information, already paint a damning picture of the Somerville communications apparatus. In the correspondence, the city’s then-Executive Director of Communications and Cable Tom Champion suggests the Curtatone administration “pick a fight” with Feldman. Furthermore, emails show flacks collaborating on a column for the Somerville Journal in an attempt to undermine Feldman and her claims.
“Ms. Feldman’s charges were seriously misleading,” according to the editorial, which was apparently penned by several officials but signed solely by City of Somerville Health Department Director Paulette Renault-Caragianes. It continues: “It’s quite true that the ramp and door threshold at the Armory don’t meet Architectural Access Board (AAB) standards … But it’s also true that the Armory was and is operating under a valid variance from the AAB for the grade of the ramp, and that persons with mobility disabilities can, and do, currently access the building. The situation is not ideal, but it is not as dire and prohibitive as portrayed by Ms. Feldman.”
As noted over and over in the Dig‘s ongoing investigation of Somerville politics and privilege–and particularly stressed in the wake of their recent investment of city resources in a futile move to discredit us–officials there will seemingly stop at nothing to defend the status quo in spite of compromising revelations. In the case of Rafkind and Feldman, rather than correcting the infrastructure in question, as wound up happening anyway, emails from 2012 reveal that Champion and others engaged in a conspiracy to quiet outspoken activists with disabilities. One email was crassly titled, “Faux Accessibility Issue for Arts at the Armory.”
Despite the municipally-funded attack on her character and cause, Feldman has endured, and just last week heard good news from the state’s Public Records Division. In 2013, Feldman petitioned the commonwealth for help in getting Somerville to release all the correspondence she requested–including certain sentences and whole emails that were previously redacted–despite claims by city lawyers that officials were exempt from such transparency. Though Somerville will be able to keep some information sealed, the Massachusetts supervisor of records found:
The city may not withhold responsive information pursuant to the attorney-client privilege for records that a City attorney may have simply viewed or received.
In its Privilege/Exemption Log, the City cited the applicability of this exemption to a May 31, 2012 email that was sent by a City employee to other City employees. This exemption is applicable to records that are personal to a particular employee and are not shared with other individuals or maintained as part of government files. Whereas the responsive email was shared among City employees, the City may not permissably withhold the responsive record …
The City is hereby ordered to provide Ms. Feldman with copies of the applicable records within ten (10) calendar days, or provide this office with a more detailed explanation of its exemption and privilege claims.
In other words, the city has until the end of this week to produce emails that will further show officials organizing a campaign against the Community Access Project and its most vocal crusaders. Considering the local media’s reluctance to cover Curtatone critically–even in cases where his underlings pick fights with human rights advocates–it’s unlikely the release will lead to our own little Bridgegate. Nevertheless, it should be incredibly interesting to see what the emails contain, assuming Somerville adheres to the request.
“I contacted [the Curtatone administration] starting in 2010 about this,” Feldman says. “It didn’t matter–they continued using [the Armory] for major events. I think the Curtatone administration knew that the facility he chose for the US Surgeon General’s visit was in violation of accessibility laws and regulations … They actually reviewed the violations that the state reported and continued attacking my character.”
AND IN OTHER NEWS …
The Somerville Journal isn’t the only publication documenting the troubles in Somerville, tax-related or otherwise. The Boston Globe might still be tossing Curtatone’s salad, but in a post bitter-sweetly titled “Somerville Is Doomed to Be a More Desirable Place to Live,” local real estate blog Curbed Boston did the unthinkable for a news organization around here, and noted the potential pitfalls the mayor’s development plans …
Moreover—and here is where the report turns alarming or alarmist, depending on your point of view—the 6,000 new housing units that Somerville imagines in its 20-year SomerVision plan will do little to alleviate this rapid rise in rents and the ensuing exodus of lower-income households. That is, the report says as many as 9,000 new units will be necessary to offset the negative effects of the spikes—a rather staggering number for a city the population of Somerville. For comparison, Boston’s latest longer-term housing plan calls for 30,000 units.
With all due respect to Curbed Boston, which is a fabulous resource in its own right, it’s insane that they’re one of the few entities reporting on the dark side of everybody’s favorite up-and-coming city. It’s not surprising, though, as most local outlets are even reluctant to report that high-ranking Somerville officials chose to pick a fight with disability rights activists rather than address their grievances.