MBTA panel chief tangled with neighborhood activist
Governor Charlie Baker’s hand-picked chairman of a special panel to diagnose the MBTA’s woes was forced from his role as a public liaison on a controversial West End development late last year after trying to silence a longtime neighborhood activist.
Equity Residential, a Chicago-based developer, pulled Paul Barrett from the public process behind the redevelopment of the Garden Garage, an eyesore slated to be replaced with a 46-story apartment tower that has provoked heavy community opposition in the West End. Barrett, the Equity Residential vice president, is still involved behind the scenes.
Barrett, who was also a campaign adviser to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, had complained to the employer of a longtime West End resident after she responded critically to a Boston Globe columnist’s endorsement of the redevelopment project — a message the woman perceived as a threat.
“Regardless of how secure you feel in your job, when somebody does something like this to you and it’s personally aimed, it’s a clear message: ‘Don’t fool around with us; we’re the big guys.’ I support myself; to threaten my livelihood is not a very nice thing,” said the resident, Kathleen Ryan, a project manager at Massachusetts General Hospital.
City development officials called it highly unusual for a private developer to contact a local opponent’s employer.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Ryan said she “still feels threatened” by Barrett’s appealing to MGH executives to stifle her dissent. She said the executives notified her that Barrett had contacted them, and that they had been long aware of her community activism.
After a Globe columnist, who has since joined the Baker administration, wrote Nov. 7 in praise of the proposed redevelopment as a suitable facet of downtown growth, Ryan sent a nearly 1,200-word e-mail from her workplace account to a small group including author Paul McMorrow, Walsh, and other elected officials. In it, she took polite issue with many of the column’s assertions and Equity Residential’s interactions with the community.
That e-mail was recirculated, finding its way to Barrett.
In response, Barrett wrote a Nov. 9 e-mail to an MGH executive accusing Ryan of using hospital time and resources to write the “long and detailed e-mail tome” and work “against both of our interests.”
Barrett called it “disheartening” to see that MGH “is paying Ms. Ryan” for her activism against the garage redevelopment.
“I assume you will deal with this matter in the way you deal with other issues like this that occur at MGH,” Barrett wrote.
Ryan, who said she has lived in the West End for more than 30 years, told the Globe that she regretted using her MGH account to send the e-mail, but insisted she wrote and sent it on her own time.
She obtained Barrett’s response and forwarded it to city officials and other activists, saying she felt “terribly intimidated at this point and concerned that these tactics are meant to get me fired and scaring me away from participating in this development process.”
An MGH spokesman said the hospital “doesn’t comment on an employee’s personal activities unrelated to their employment at Mass. General.”
In an e-mailed statement, Equity Residential spokesman Marty McKenna said, “Paul very much regrets having sent the e-mail. We respect both the process for project review and the viewpoints of stakeholders. Paul is not involved in the public process on the Garden Garage project, but Paul does lead our development operation in Boston and continues to be involved in other aspects of the project.”
Reached briefly on Wednesday, Barrett said he was in Jamaica and would return the call, but did not.
A Baker adviser said the governor was unaware of Barrett’s trip to Jamaica when he appointed him to the T panel.
Veterans of the Menino administration said that Barrett, who was former mayor Raymond L. Flynn’s final appointment as BRA director, did not enjoy good relations with the late mayor. Barrett lasted less than a month into Menino’s first full term after the mayor issued him a quit-or-be-fired ultimatum.
After a stint as economic development secretary in Rhode Island, Barrett returned to the city, advising Walsh during the 2013 mayoral campaign. Last year, Barrett stood with Baker to unveil the then-candidate’s economic development proposal, as Baker sought to broaden his bipartisan appeal.
But, in the Garden Garage case, city officials reacted angrily to Barrett’s contact with MGH.
BRA director Brian Golden, who at the time was serving in an acting capacity, “took it upon himself” after learning of the “transgressions” to complain directly to Equity Residential executives, BRA official Erico Lopez said in a note to local activists and elected officials.
A city official said Golden made the call at Walsh’s instruction.
Golden, Lopez wrote, “expressed his displeasure and concern about the situation at hand and also stressed the importance of developing positive communication” with activists.
“As a result, Equity Residential has recently communicated that they will remove Mr. Barrett from any public process associated with the Garden Garage proposal moving forward,” he said.
This week, Walsh spokeswoman Laura Oggeri said that the mayor “knows Paul, he works on business that involves the city,” but that “he is not considered an adviser.”
Baker last week announced Barrett as chairman of a special panel to scrutinize the T’s core functions, after weeks of transit delays and shutdowns bedeviling the region. The accompanying release hailed Barrett’s “two decades of public service experience in state and local government.” The announcement did not mention Barrett’s role with Equity.
On Wednesday, Baker senior adviser Jim Conroy said in an e-mailed statement, “Paul Barrett brings to the table a long record of public service and a wealth of experience in public transit and we are grateful that he has volunteered to serve in this capacity.”