In this week's Letters, the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), John F. Palmieri, writes to defend the city's decision to sponsor the construction of the Roxbury mosque, near the intersection of Tremont Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. After more than 20 years of planning and construction, that mosque, officially known as the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, recently opened its doors for prayer.
Palmieri's letter, a welcome addition to the all-too-incomplete public record of this controversial project, is a gem of indirection — one that ignores the matter of the mosque's contractual obligation to maintain two neighborhood parks that abut the religious center.
To date, the City Council has been strong-armed by the mayor's office into averting its gaze from all that went on in the construction of the mosque. It will be interesting to see if the City Council has the institutional fortitude to at least investigate whether the mosque is keeping its promise to the city to upkeep those parks to the agreed-upon standard. The city sold the land that the mosque stands upon to its original developers at a greatly reduced price, in part in an exchange for a promise to maintain those parks.
Palmieri suggests the city cooperated fully with the Phoenix's look into the story behind the construction of the mosque. It certainly fulfilled its legal obligation to make what it defines as the public record available to reporter David S. Bernstein, who authored the 7000-word Phoenix report. (See "Menino's Mosque.")
As Bernstein found, the public record strongly suggests that a well-regarded BRA staffer, Muhammad Ali-Salaam, played both sides against the middle in acting as an inside advocate and actual fundraiser for the mosque project, all while executing his public responsibilities as a taxpayer-paid employee. Whether such conduct represented a conflict of interest is a question for Attorney General Martha Coakley to tackle.
What Palmieri does not shed light on is why, when asked for interviews and documents that might have further illuminated the process that lead to the construction and funding of the mosque, the BRA stonewalled. Is it possible that the city might not want to admit publicly, if it had to do it all over again, that it might not have backed the project?
The Phoenix is not the only party interested in learning the full story of the circumstances behind the building of the mosque. The David Project, a pro-Israel, anti-terrorist watchdog group, has twice gone to court seeking disclosure of a broad range of documents and e-mails regarding the transfer of the publicly owned land, located near Roxbury Community College. The courts have twice rebuffed the David Project's attempts to gain access to information contained in e-mails that the BRA says have been deleted.
In his judgment of the case, Justice Ralph Gants of the Superior Court, who appears headed for a seat on the State Supreme Court, writes, in effect, that since the mosque has already been built, requiring the BRA to take special steps to retrieve e-mails is not worth the effort. This seems shortsighted. Is not scrutiny of past actions a valuable guide for the future? Gants found that Massachusetts law governing what e-mails are — or are not — public documents is not sufficiently precise. Gants's decision is certainly politically convenient. It means that a potentially embarrassing — perhaps even nasty — political fight might be avoided.