Thursday, June 3, 2010
Easton officials: Joyce part of solution, not problem

The recent media reports alluding to a possible conflict of interest involving state Senator Brian Joyce and his Canton-based law practice are way off base, according to top officials in Easton, who consider the legislator to be a veritable hero for his role in the preservation of the historic Ames Shovel Works site.
Questions about Joyce’s ties to Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable housing law, had surfaced last month when the Joint Committee on Housing, of which he is vice chair, failed to act on a petition to repeal the controversial law, forcing petitioners to collect 11,900 additional signatures by June 23 in an effort to get the initiative on the November ballot. Meanwhile, it was revealed that Joyce had also been working as a private attorney for Boston developer Beacon Communities LLC, the company tapped by Easton officials to rescue an affordable housing project previously approved on the Ames site.
A May 7 article in the Boston Herald detailed the senator’s dual roles under the headline, “Rep has conflict on 40B law.”
But to those in Easton familiar with Joyce’s involvement in the shovel shops saga — a story, incidentally, that has many parallels to the Plymouth Rubber case in Canton — such accusations are not only inaccurate; they are downright insulting.
“I don’t understand what the question is,” said Selectmen Chairman Colleen Corona, refusing to hide her displeasure over the sudden media attention being paid to Joyce.
Corona was one of four who turned out at the shovel shops site on Friday — along with Town Administrator David Colton, Historical Commissioner Ed Hands, and David Ames, president of the Friends of the Ames Shovel Works — to express their support and gratitude for what Joyce has done to preserve their local treasure.
The senator was also there, and he began by clarifying his position on 40B, namely, that he opposes repeal of the legislation but also has a track record of voting to curtail its abuses. He pointed to a series of reforms he supported in 2002 that were subsequently vetoed by then Governor Jane Swift as an example of his efforts to put more power in the hands of local communities.
“I have voted to curb 40B,” he said with enthusiasm. “That’s the irony.”
Joyce also insisted that he has “never represented a 40B developer,” and that, in agreeing to work for Beacon, he was representing a developer who had inherited a 40B permit from another builder.
Furthermore, Joyce said community leaders had reached out to him, and mostly out of desperation when it became clear that the site’s owners, brothers George and Robert Turner, had no plans of honoring the town’s wishes.
Colton said the Turners were going to demolish some of the historic buildings on the site while dramatically altering the character of others to make way for a 182-unit apartment complex with 30,000 square feet of office space. Part of their plans involved removing a central section of the Long Shop — the oldest and most recognizable structure on the site — and constructing a road in its place.
“There was no way this community was going to let them do what they wanted to do without a fight,” said Colton, adding, “The only solution I could see for the problem was to bring in another developer to step in the Turners’ shoes and do something sensible.”
Corona said they reached out to Joyce because he has a history of helping communities in need and because they thought his law firm might be able to locate a developer who would be willing to work with the community and rescue the project.
Joyce then contacted Beacon CEO Howard Cohen, who not only agreed to buy the property, but also promised to develop it according to the recommendations of local preservationists. The final design included 119 housing units (24 of which will be affordable), a 2.4-acre public park, an onsite wastewater treatment plant, and a public museum with a self-guided walking tour.
David Ames, great-great-great grandson of shovel shops’ founder Oliver Ames, said the plans were consistent with the design criteria set forth by the Friends of the Ames Shovel Works, and in some respects, represented an improvement over the Friends’ proposal.
“Now, thanks to [Joyce] and the support of the community, this nationally recognized historic mill complex will be preserved, and the town’s historic center will be revitalized,” said Corona in a statement provided to the Citizen. “While any other attorney or broker would have earned a sizable fee for negotiating such a deal, [Joyce] did not take any fee.”
Joyce said he later agreed to represent Beacon before local boards, but only after being cleared to do so by the state Ethics Commission. He also made a full public disclosure prior to the start of each meeting.
“It was very clear,” Corona said. “There was nothing secret about it.”
In addition, according to an advisory put out by the Ethics Commission on the conflict of interest law, a legislator can be an attorney in private practice as long as he or she does not represent those clients before state agencies, which Joyce has not done.
The advisory also states that a “legislator who is a partner in a law firm … may participate in a committee hearing concerning general legislation in which his law firm has a financial interest” as long as he first files a written disclosure with the Ethics Commission.
Then again, even if Joyce did play by the rules — and it certainly appears that he did — opponents of 40B argue that his very relationship with developers as a private attorney is indicative of a larger problem in state government.
“Many of our legislators are well taken care of by the industry,” noted John Belskis, chairman of the Coalition to Repeal 40B.
Belskis said that there is a perception among constituents in Joyce’s district, fair or not, that the senator is afraid to challenge 40B due to his relationships with developers, and he said Joyce’s silence at the recent legislative hearings did not do anything to alter that perception.
At the same time, Belskis called 40B a political “third rail” and said he understands why legislators are afraid to touch it — they do not want to be labeled as an opponent of affordable housing. He said it gets even trickier in an election year, and that is especially true this year for Joyce, who will face one of two possible opponents — Canton Selectman Bob Burr or Milton resident Richard Livingston — who would like to see 40B reformed.
Regardless of what happens this November, however, the fact remains that the Ames Shovel Works — the company that once sold 60 percent of the shovels used worldwide, including shovels used during the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad — will be preserved for generations with the help of Joyce and a willing developer.
Historical Commissioner Ed Hands said the National Trust for Historic Preservation even wants to use the project as a case study on how a community can come together to preserve an endangered historical site. Corona added that the entire town is “thrilled with the outcome.”
“It has the potential to be an extraordinary success story,” said Joyce, adding that in ten years “people are going to look out and it’s going to still be the heart of Easton. It’s going to be even more beautiful.”