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Council clashes over open meeting law

Murphy airs grievances over redistricting

Isaiah Thompson
Council clashes over open meeting law
Speaking at last week’s Council meeting, at-large Councilor Erin Murphy implied that councilors and/or staff violated open meetings laws. PHOTO: ISAIAH THOMPSON

The ongoing battle over new redistricting maps drawn and passed by the Boston City Council last year is once again spilling over from the courts into the Council chamber.

On Wednesday, two councilors introduced demands for city records in the form of two so-called 17F requests, both seemingly aimed at re-airing various grievances by opponents of the map approved by a majority vote of the Council last fall.

The records requests — one which passed the Council and the other which was defeated by a deadlocked vote — may prove largely symbolic, but they reflect, if nothing else, the degree to which rancor over of the body’s redistricting process has divided and continues to divide the body along political, if not partisan, lines.

These latest maneuvers come as a U.S. district court judge is weighing evidence presented by plaintiffs suing the city, who claim the redistricting process violated the federal Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Constitution and state open meetings laws. A hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction that would stall adoption of the new map concluded last week, after testimony that included two current councilors — at-large Councilors Erin Murphy and Michael Flaherty — taking the stand on the plaintiffs’ behalf.

On the Council floor Wednesday, Murphy introduced a 17F request that sought a copy of records, apparently already obtained from the city via public records request by an attorney sympathetic to those opposing the new map, detailing “any redistricting correspondence between Council offices and some staff,” according to Murphy.

Murphy said that she had already seen some of those records, which totaled over 5,000 pages, but did not elaborate on what the records she saw contained.

Murphy did, however, imply that the documents suggested some violation of City Council rules.

“Our staff is an extension of our offices. Our entire staff takes the state ethics, public records and open meeting law training along with us because they are also expected to uphold the rules in the charter of the city of Boston,” Murphy said.

Murphy had also filed, prior to the meeting, an order for a hearing on “the constitutional and open meeting law violations of the redistricting committee,” which contained new allegations that councilors and/or staff had violated the open meeting laws in a meeting that took place in September 2022, at the Lena Park Community Development Corporation, a meeting during which no more than two councilors were present at any time, according to sources who were present. Were three councilors present and discussing council matters, the meeting could have violated open meeting laws.

The document also contained apparent quotes from communications between Council staff and unstated recipients that would seem to play to arguments made by the plaintiffs suing the city in federal court claiming that councilors were unduly preoccupied with the racial makeup of districts during the redistricting process.

Despite its appearance on the Council’s docket Wednesday, that hearing order was not brought to the floor during the Council meeting.

Murphy’s 17F request failed to pass the Council, after a tied vote of 6–6.

Murphy did not return a request for comment by the Banner.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, among those who voted against the measure, called Murphy’s 17F request an example of “political theater,” in a statement to the Banner, adding that “If [Murphy] believes an open meeting law violation occurred she should file a complaint with the attorney general’s office, which is the appropriate venue for that complaint.”

Councilor Frank Baker, who helped fund the redistricting lawsuit against the city, meanwhile introduced his own 17F request Wednesday for city records pertaining to the city’s hiring of outside legal counsel in that lawsuit and the dollar amount the city has spent defending its position.

“Pretty straightforward, just looking to get a sense on what is being spent on this lawsuit here in taxpayer money,” said Baker.

That request passed the Council by an 8–4 vote.

In federal court, attorneys for the plaintiffs suing the city over the redistricting process attempted to show that councilors improperly engaged in “racial balancing” as they re-drew district lines, with particular weight put on the council’s decision to move a block of largely white residents from District 3 in Dorchester to District 4 in Mattapan.

Attorneys for the city argued that council members were obligated to change the districts due to population changes and were properly doing their job in exercising discretion over how the new districts would be shaped.