The petty infighting that has become the hallmark of this iteration of the Boston City Council continued this week, all surrounding a leaked internal complaint that accused three councilors — Ricardo Arroyo, Julia Mejia, and Kendra Lara — of bullying and harassing the council’s attorney.
Speculation over the source of the letter’s leak is adding fuel to the council rancor. A review by the Globe of the geotagged location of photos of the letter, which were forwarded by a Boston Herald reporter to a city councilor, suggest they were sent from a home on the South Boston street where Council President Ed Flynn lives. (The Herald first reported the existence of the letter.) A second city councilor confirmed they had also received the same photos of the letter with the same geotag.
Geotagging offers geographic coordinates for certain data, including images. Depending on the settings, some phones automatically embed geotags for photos. Geotagging is a feature often utilized on social media, as users can assign a location to their posts. Metadata for images, including geotags, can be edited, but both councilors emphasized they did not alter the photos in any way.
Flynn, a centrist who throughout the last council term has clashed openly with the trio of progressive councilors mentioned in the letter, denied Tuesday he was the source of the leak. Asked during a brief phone interview why the geotags for the images were from his block in Southie, Flynn said, “I don’t know, I didn’t leak anything.”
“I didn’t send any thing to any reporter,” said Flynn, who has also accused Arroyo, Mejia, and Lara of bullying him over the last year.
The letter details allegations from the council’s compliance director and lawyer, Christine O’Donnell. In it, O’Donnell alleges that proceedings at an April 12 council meeting fostered a hostile and toxic work environment “as I was intimidated by a City Councilor and ridiculed by other Councilors when I was duly conducting my responsibilities as the City Council’s Compliance Director and Staff Counsel.”
In the letter, O’Donnell claims that during a discussion on a hearing order that dealt with the redistricting process, Arroyo was “yelling out from his seat” at her and councilors Lara and Mejia made remarks that “appear to attack my integrity and character.”
“These actions are leading to the point where I am not able to do my job effectively without fear of retribution or retaliation,” O’Donnell said in the letter.
In statements this week, two of the councilors denied O’Donnell’s claims of bullying and intimidation.
Lara said the exchange was a “disagreement regarding the council rules and nothing more” and that her comments were made “in regards to the matter before the council and certainly not directed toward staff counsel.”
Arroyo, meanwhile, said the entire exchange was between himself and Flynn “on the floor, on video, in front of media and the public.”
“The video will make clear that at no time were my actions discriminatory or directed at anyone other than the council president,” said Arroyo, who noted that the Globe wrote about the meeting and its clashes.
Flynn initially declined to comment on the contents of O’Donnell’s letter, but later said in a statement he knows “the professionalism and integrity of Attorney Christine O’Donnell.”
“Furthermore, bullying, intimidation and harassment of a member of the City Council central staff is unconscionable,” he said. “During this political campaign season, the residents of Boston deserve elected officials who represent them with integrity, maturity, and honesty.”
Whether the leak of the letter violated ethics law or city regulations is an open question. In most cases, the city would redact or withhold personnel-related files before they are released, according to city officials. A City Hall conflict-of-interest memo from 2014 reads, “Improperly disclosing or personally using confidential information obtained through your job is prohibited.”
State ethics law, meanwhile, bars public officials from improperly disclosing materials that are exempt to the public records law, such as “personnel and medical files or information and any other materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The law specifically says the release of such information is banned if it furthers an official’s “personal interest.”
Elisa Filman, a local employment attorney, was unconvinced the leak constitutes an ethics violation.
“The privacy interest of O’Donnell would likely be outweighed by the public interest,” Filman said.
When considering disclosures, courts often weigh whether a leak caused personal embarrassment or included “intimate details of a highly personal nature,” such as medical conditions.
“Complaints about the city’s allegedly toxic environment probably don’t meet that standard,” Filman said. “At the end of the day, the public has a recognized interest in knowing whether the City Council is carrying out their duties in a law-abiding, efficient manner and that is exactly what this letter is about.”
This week was supposed to be a quiet one for the council, with no meetings scheduled. But the letter caused an uproar on City Hall’s fifth floor.
Despite Flynn’s denial, Arroyo laid the blame of the leak fully on the council president, calling it a “blatant abuse of power.”
Mejia, meanwhile, framed the letter’s leak as one that potentially carries racial overtones. Flynn is white, while Arroyo is Puerto Rican and Mejia and Lara are of Dominican descent.
“Looking at the current political climate, leaders of color are always under attack. From the way we talk, to the way we show up, to the way we legislate for those we serve,” Mejia said. “If true, I am disheartened to hear of this allegation.”