Stepping into a long-running legal clash, US Attorney Rachael Rollins has launched a civil rights investigation into Quincy’s efforts to block the rebuilding of the Long Island Bridge, saying the city’s stance may discriminate against people with addiction by preventing them from getting treatment at a recovery program Boston wants to reopen on the island.
Rollins’s move drew a sharp response from the Quincy mayor, who said the city has never objected to the plan to restore the treatment program but has serious concerns about the impact the bridge would have on the community. While the island is owned by Boston, the only way to access the bridge would be through the Squantum section of Quincy.
“I simply will not accept any premise that suggests Quincy has not done its part to protect and support the most vulnerable members of our community,” Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch said in a statement last week. “Far from discriminating against people suffering from addiction, this community is a leader in the Commonwealth and the nation in providing life-saving and life-changing services to our residents.”
In a May 12 letter to Koch, Rollins said she was initiating the investigation to determine whether Quincy was in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with substance use disorder. She noted that Boston proposed rebuilding the bridge “to create a recovery campus” on the island.
In her letter, Rollins said the investigation was focusing on Quincy’s efforts regarding the bridge reconstruction, including ordinances passed by its City Council in 2018 creating permitting requirements for bridges and restricting vehicles on an access road; and the Conservation Commission’s refusal to give Boston an environmental permit, which is required for the work on protected wetlands.
For Quincy, according to Koch, there are concerns about how the bridge would impact the quality of life for people living on access roads.
“The issues are access points through Squantum that Boston’s own analysis stated were inadequate and the flawed bridge proposal that poses practical and environmental issues that the Quincy community has every right to raise,” Koch said.
He said Boston has shared very little with Quincy officials about its plans for Long Island and won a court order to prevent the disclosure of some information.
“We hope that, working with the US attorney, we can all learn more about what is planned, and together develop a plan that will work for Boston and Quincy and the broader issue of opioid treatment and recovery,” Koch said.
Long Island offered shelter for more than 700 homeless people and addiction recovery programs for some 225 people until 2014, when an emergency evacuation was ordered because the bridge was deemed unsafe. It was demolished the following year.
Boston officials pledged to rebuild the bridge, but while the project has stalled they are now confronting the immediate need for more housing and treatment programs to address the crisis that led to tent encampments — which were cleared out four months ago — around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known as Mass. and Cass.
On Friday, a spokesman for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said, ”The administration is evaluating Long Island as a piece of the city’s medium- and long-term options to address gaps in transitional housing and substance use disorder treatment and recovery programs.”
A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office declined to comment last week on the investigation.
A Superior Court judge ruled in 2020 that the Conservation Commission’s refusal to issue the environmental permit was null and void because the state Department of Environmental Protection later approved the work. The state Supreme Judicial Court is currently considering Quincy’s appeal of that ruling.
But Rollins’s letter indicates her office’s investigation is delving into whether there were any behind-the-scenes discussions by Quincy officials that point toward discrimination.
She gave Quincy 30 days to provide her office with e-mails, texts, and voice messages related to the Long Island Bridge proposal that were to or from two dozen city officials, including the mayor, his chief of staff, and former and current members of the City Council and Conservation Commission. She’s also seeking documents along with agendas and minutes from meetings held by city officials about the project.
The US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts has reached more than a dozen settlement agreements with hospitals, health care facilities, state correctional facilities, and the Massachusetts Parole Board to resolve complaints that they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in its treatment of recovering addicts, according to authorities.
Former US attorney Andrew Lelling said the office aggressively went after nursing homes and health care facilities that were discriminating against recovering addicts by refusing to accept them or provide treatment. It was also the first office to reach a settlement with jails requiring them to make sure that recovering addicts continued to have access to medication while in custody, he said.
But, he said, the investigation of Quincy is an unusual use of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I think the difficulty is going to be that the city seems to have some legitimate concern about traffic patterns” and other things, Lelling said. “So, I’m not sure how easy it is going to be to show that they are acting with a discriminatory intent.”
He said the government would have to prove that Quincy’s concerns about traffic are a pretext and “if it was a bridge leading to a resort that would be fine, but because it’s a bridge leading to a recovery center, we say no.”
Quincy City Councilor William Harris, who represents Squantum, said his constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to rebuilding the bridge because the streets will be congested with traffic and it’s “about quality of life.”
Quincy officials have been urging Boston to abandon its plans for the bridge and ferry people to the island. But, Boston officials say ferry service wouldn’t be adequate for a variety of reasons, including the need for a quick response in an emergency, according to court filings.
Harris said he’s not worried about sharing his e-mails and texts with the government because he has not violated any laws.