At his 2014 inauguration, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh delivered a speech outlining his goals and promises to the city, among them a pledge to create a special committee to bring a new standard of transparency to City Hall.
That spring, Walsh made good on his promise. In a press release, the mayor announced the creation of a city “Ethics Committee” to review and revise existing policies around financial disclosure and other ethics issues and establish “an even stronger culture of ethical behavior and transparency in city government.”
In the nearly three years since, the committee has released no public reports, public recommendations, public advisory opinions, or public findings that WGBH News was able to obtain (city officials say it was not asked to issue written reports). It has not met publicly, has no web site, and is not listed among the city’s myriad other boards, commissions, or committees.
And, city officials confirmed to WGBH News last week, the committee has ceased meeting, at least for now — with little of the fanfare with which it was created.
One of the committee’s four original members says that he was unaware it was meeting in the first place.
“I attended an introductory meeting, and at the meeting we did discuss some areas that the [committee] intended to look at,” said Peter Sturges, one of Walsh’s four appointees to the committee. Sturges is board chair of Common Cause Massachusetts, which advocates for government transparency.
But after that, Sturges said, “There was no meeting that I was aware of.”
Sturges resigned from the committee in 2016.
With issues of financial disclosure, transparency and ethics in government coming to the fore of national politics, Walsh has not been immune from calls to push for greater transparency in Boston government — last week, the Boston Globe reported on Walsh’s still unachieved goal of requiring lobbyists of city government to disclose their lobbying activities.
It was after questions by The Boston Herald and WGBH News that Walsh's charitable foundation assented to disclose many, though not all, donors to a 2015 fundraiser (a list which included developers and other companies with city business) and pledged to release all donors in the future.
The establishment of an ethics committee was a talking point for Walsh on the 2013 campaign trail, at his inauguration, and in office. But it seems to have fallen largely out of public view since then.
Nicole Caravella, a spokesperson for Walsh, emphasized in emails to WGBH News that the committee did meet, “either by phone or in person,” at least four times since 2014, and “conducted dozens of hours of work and exchanged many phone calls” over that period — though the office did not provide exact dates. As a purely advisory body, the committee did not maintain meeting minutes or agendas, according to Caravella.
The Mayor’s Press Office did not offer an explanation as to why committee member Sturges would recall being invited to no such meetings, or whether he was indeed made aware of them; but the office did confirm that Sturges had resigned from the committee.
The Mayor’s Office did not offer, as requested by WGBH News, any formal or informal memos, recommendations, or other documentation that might have been produced by the committee, noting that it was not tasked with producing such written reports.
Sturges acknowledged that the committee may have gotten together after its initial meeting, but said that if it did he was not aware of those meetings.
Walsh spokesperson Caravella said that the committee’s work over the past few years involved various reforms to city disclosure policies, including:
Working with the city’s law department to streamline the city’s Statement of Financial Interest forms.
Implementing, with the help of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology, at virtually no extra cost to taxpayers, an online filing system for the disclosures, which were previously filed in hard copy. (They will remain unavailable online to the public but can be obtained via records request.)
Creating a new ethics education and training curriculum for city employees that has since been implemented.
In many other big cities — Philadelphia, New York, and, in a smaller city closer to home, Somerville — ethics commissions serve as independent watchdog agencies with clear investigatory and enforcement powers.
Walsh never promised an ethics body along those lines. And the few specific goals he did outline were indeed among those tasks the Mayor’s Office says the committee took up.
But the committee’s stated scope of reviewing “any relevant changes to the City’s Ethics Policy” appears to have ended there.
The Mayor’s Office confirmed that that the committee is no longer meeting, “now that the initial goals of the committee have been achieved,” spokesperson Caravella said in an email.
Two other committee members, committee chair and city Corporation Counsel Eugene O’Flaherty and University of Massachusetts-Boston Chancellor Keith Motley, did not directly return calls for comment.
Elissa Flynn-Poppey, a fourth member of the committee who also works as Walsh’s personal attorney, serves as president of his charitable foundation, and does financial work for his mayoral committee, directed inquiries to the Mayor’s Press Office.
Asked whether Walsh plans to reconvene, reconstitute or replace the now-dormant ethics committee, spokesperson Caravella wrote: “The Walsh Administration will continue to uphold only the highest ethical standards and prioritize efforts to improve transparency.”