, Gloucester, MA

October 5, 2012

Editorial: Council should seek more, not less, input on hotel plan

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The fact that City Councilor Bruce Tobey is insisting that officials with Beauport Gloucester LLC hold a community meeting to hear the views of residents with questions over their proposed hotel project at least promises that there will be a chance for those folks to be heard (See news story, Page 1).

Yet it’s troubling, to say the least, that — for the second time in three months — city officials are once again pursuing a course that would limit, not welcome, public input and debate in a project that, while holding immense promise for the city and its residents, continues to generate many questions and concerns from residents and some businesses in the Fort neighborhood, where the planned 101-room, four-story hotel will forever alter the landscape on the former Birdseye property.

For whether people agree or disagree with the stands – or sometimes shaky tactics — of the hotel opponents, the fact is they deserve to be heard and have their questions answered. And while it’s understandable that Tobey, who heads the council’s Planning and Development subcommittee and is this right in the middle of all this – would want to play it safe and adhere to even the smallest tidbits of state and local procedural regulations, it would be better if the city erred on the side of more openness and public access to the process, not less.

The latest flashpoint over the convoluted Fort hotel process has come over Ward 2 Councilor Melissa Cox’s very justified attempt to host an open ward meeting to get more residents’ input regarding the project — only to be told she couldn’t.

Why, you might ask? That’s a very good question.

In an e-mail she sent to Cox, City Solicitor Suzanne Egan suggested that a ward meeting held by a member of the special permit granting authority could be considered “ex-parte” communication — essentially when a member of a judicial body hears from one side without the other being aware of it – and the presumption is that would violate a state mandate against members of a sitting quasi-judicial body hearing such testimony. And one can argue that the council serves in that role in dealing with the hotel permit request.

Yet Egan’s advice somehow assumes that no one from Beauport Gloucester or anyone who supports the project would attend any such meeting — and that’s a stretch, at best. Indeed, it would seem to benefit Beauport Gloucester officials to be sure they did attend any potential Ward 2 meeting, so they could hear some of the concerns raised by residents as this project moves toward a new phase, with loosely related infrastructure work already in the preliminary stages along Commercial Street.

None of this, of course, might seem suspicious if it didn’t follow a July move in which the council initially sought to address a legitimately petitioned second hearing on the overlay process by declaring it open, and then shutting it down before anyone would have a chance to speak. So the city’s move to squelch a ward meeting designed to hear public input only fuels hotel foes’ suspicions that the city just doesn’t want to hear, let alone heed, what they have to say.

Thankfully, cooler heads had second thoughts about the July hearing process, and – even with the Beauport neighborhood meeting now on the table — they should reconsider this as well.

If indeed Egan’s interpretation of the state’s permit hearing mandates is correct, the city would do better by seeking a waiver of that regulation to allow more input, not less – and to allow councilors to meet with their constituents, as Cox and Sefatia Rome-Theken have both suggested.

By all counts, the city has rarely, if ever, held to this supposed state mandate in the past.

There’s certainly no reason to hide behind it now.