Mayor Martin J. Walsh wanted to spruce up the dingy, closet-sized kitchen just outside his City Hall office, but didn’t want to spend a lot of taxpayer money. So he found someone to donate a granite countertop, dark cabinets, and a stainless steel sink.
The donor? Joseph F. Fallon, one of Boston’s most prominent developers, whose projects require approval by City Hall. The countertop and cabinets — replacements for gray laminate and faux wood countertops — were salvaged from one of Fallon’s buildings when Vertex Pharmaceuticals vacated the space. The fixtures were headed for the dumpster anyway, Walsh and Fallon said.
But the Walsh administration never disclosed the donation and failed to get City Council approval, as required by state law. And one fiscal watchdog said a gift to the mayor’s office from a developer was inappropriate because it could suggest that someone was seeking preferential treatment.
Walsh, who spent nearly $1,900 of city money to finish the renovation, rejected the criticism.
“Special treatment for a developer donating used furniture? That’s absurd,” Walsh said last week in an interview. “There’s no way. First off, I don’t operate that way. Second, that’s not how business happens.”
The Walsh administration now pledges to seek City Council approval for the donation, saying it did not do so earlier because it was not aware of the requirement until a reporter inquired.
In a statement, the Fallon Co. said tenants frequently leave abandoned property. “Instead of sending it to landfills, our standard operating procedure is to find worthy community, nonprofit, or civic organizations that can make use of this remnant inventory,” the statement said.
The kitchen — which is more of a kitchenette — is behind a locked door among the warren of offices and conference rooms within shouting distance of the mayor’s office. The secure area includes offices for top city officials and the desks of young advance members and is not accessible to most municipal employees or the public.
Standing in the kitchen, Walsh pointed to a notch in the granite to emphasize that the countertop had been originally cut for another space. The mayor stretched out his arms to emphasize the tight quarters of the kitchenette.
“This isn’t buying anything,” Walsh said. “I look at this as a way of renovating City Hall with used material to save taxpayers’ dollars.”
It’s not just the kitchen at City Hall that’s screaming out for a face lift.
The mayor’s office suite could use an overhaul, too, so that fraying rugs, sagging chairs, and chipped tables could be replaced, according to Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by business and nonprofits. But the cost should be borne by taxpayers, Tyler said, to avoid “any perceived appearance of a conflict of interest” with developers and others who do business with the city.
“The mayor has extraordinary influence over all aspects of city government,” Tyler said. “The easiest way to prevent a conflict of interest is to have the city pay for the improvements.”
Using tax dollars to redecorate can prove perilous. Former governor Deval Patrick sparked uproar when he spent $10,000 on damask drapes for his State House office. Patrick ultimately repaid the state.
Walsh has broader plans for renovations at City Hall, including revamping the third-floor lobby. In the Eagle Room, Walsh pointed to a ragged rug and a broken chair held together with glue. In the mayor’s office, fabric has begun to droop from the underside of chairs.
“I sit in this chair here and your butt comes out the bottom,” Walsh said. “I’m in here with prime ministers. I’m sitting down and I feel like I’m on the ground.”
The mayor said he would gladly accept used office furnishings from local businesses to cut costs and upgrade City Hall.
“I’d like to have an office that reflects what we’d like to accomplish in the city of Boston,” Walsh said, “not something that looks like my first apartment with chairs that don’t match.”
Walsh’s impulse to save taxpayer money is noble but disclosure of any donations is key, said Matthew A. Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, the city’s fiscal watchdog.
“It should always be discussed and publicly noticed,” Cahill said. “When things like this slip through the cracks, it could potentially be a problem down the road.”
In the context of Boston’s $2.8 billion budget, the kitchen renovations were modest. Upgrades include a new stainless steel refrigerator and matching microwave, for which the city paid $737, according to spokeswoman Bonnie McGilpin. Floor tiles cost $264 and the city paid a plumber $142 to connect the sink. The total cost was nearly $1,900, which included 17 hours of work by city employees to install cabinets, paint, and perform electrical work.
Walsh’s chief of policy, Joyce Linehan, donated a matching coffee maker. The mayor’s cousin and security chief, Sergeant Winifred Cotter, purchased an electric kettle.
Fallon’s gift included dark-colored cabinets with 12 doors and four drawers. The granite countertop is roughly 18 square feet, according to measurements from the city. The material cost less than $1,000, McGilpin said.
Fallon’s donation does not violate state ethics law because it was given to the city and not to Walsh as an individual, according to Pam Wilmot, executive director of the good government group Common Cause Massachusetts.
“It needs to be done in the open,” Wilmot said. “Having an open and transparent process is what really helps cure appearances of conflict of interest.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.