Many Mass and Cass Task Force members are missing more meetings than they’re attending

Meeting minutes obtained by Substantive reveal how just two appointed members showed up for every meeting over a 10-month span.

A visualization shows 24 seats at a table, representing the 24 individuals formally appointed to the Mass and Cass Task Force back in 2019. Of these 24 individuals, just two attended every full meeting held between March and December of last year. (Graphic by Dakota Antelman)

Many members of Mass and Cass 2.0 Task Force are not actually showing up for meetings, records show. 

Advocates see this as proof of a dysfunctional response to a problem they say city officials have already repeatedly bungled.

“It says to me that people are busy, and adding them to this Task Force, while important on the surface, isn’t the best way to achieve goals or even set them.” prominent South End Resident Marla Smith wrote in a message to Substantive, this week, reacting to new revelations. 

Documents provide snapshot of Mass and Cass meetings

Mayor Marty Walsh announced the Mass and Cass Task Force in October, 2019 after an attack on a corrections officer and a retaliatory police crackdown refocused attention on the plight of Boston’s addiction epicenter in the South End and Roxbury. 

On paper, the group gathered 24 key stakeholders to brainstorm solutions to problems of homelessness and open drug use in their area. 

In reality, though, those 24 task force members have hardly ever all met at the same time, meeting minutes obtained by Substantive and Marla Smith, mentioned earlier, show.

City officials turned over nearly 100 pages of these notes chronicling 21 individual meetings, after twin records requests from both Substantive and Smith.

The cash of paper, admittedly, is incomplete.

Minutes are inconsistent in their format and level of detail. One, notably, does not even record meeting attendance. 

The release, as a whole, further leaves out minutes from meetings before February, 2020.

Still, these documents offer a window into 10 smaller “working group” sessions and 11 full group meetings which all task force members should have attended. 

Attendance notes reveal piles of missed meetings

Substantive reviewed all of those full group meetings that recorded attendance. 

  • In total, just two task force members showed up for every meeting. 

  • Of the remaining 22, ten missed more than half of all meetings.

  • Then, there was an issue of stand-ins. 

    The task force includes City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Frank Baker, Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Thompkins, and State Representatives Jon Santiago and Liz Miranda. 

    Essaibi George and Baker had representation at each meeting reviewed. But they, themselves, only showed up to seven and six Zoom calls respectively, sending stand-ins in their place when they were busy. 

    Thomkins personally missed all but one meeting, sending his department’s Director of Legislative Affairs, Peter Antonellis, in his place for four calls. 

    Santiago leaned on Legislative Aide Cory Azmon for five meetings he missed. An emergency room physician and a representative, Santiago himself logged on to three full task force calls. 

    Miranda attended four calls. That’s more than Santiago or Thompkins. She still, though, sent her aide Mariela Casellas, to one call in September, 2020 that she missed. 

“They are the key players who can effect change but they were already stretched thin on time before this,” Smith told Substantive when presented with these findings. “There needs to be a team whose sole focus is this, not distracted by other responsibilities.”

Task Force creators had unrealistic expectations, experts say

The Task Force exists to foster communication between residents and advocates on the ground and the elected officials who make policy decisions downtown. When those elected officials miss meetings, though, that communication, obviously isn’t happening. 

The solution to this, leaders say, is not to just muscle task force members into attending more meetings.

They are overburdened. And they have day jobs, after all, that often take up far more than a typical 40-hour work week. 

Instead, Smith and others gathering in their own online discussion forums say they’re intrigued by a new proposal from Mayoral Candidate Andrea Campbell to create a dedicated team of city staff working solely on the issues at Mass and Cass. 

That plan isn’t perfect, some are quick to note. But it effectively shifts some of the Mass and Cass Task Force's problem-solving responsibilities onto the plate of a hypothetical Mass and Cass Chief and a team below that person.

“Right now, it feels like we’re operating from a triage position rather than a proactive position,” Smith said in her message to Substantive. “...Meeting monthly [as the Task Force does] just is not enough to even put a dent in the suffering [at Mass and Cass]”

Annissa Essaibi George, Frank Baker, Jon Santiago and Liz Miranda did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Sheriff Steven Thompkins, meanwhile, could not be reached as his communications office did not respond to a phone call and message left Jan. 24. A second direct phone number listed on the Suffolk County Sheriff’s website was incorrect and redirected to a private citizen.

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Substantive is made possible through the support of generous donations, primarily from supporters on Patreon. 

A special thanks, here, to Julie Antelman, Golden Bryant, Jasmin Davis-Shearer, William Cordero, Marla Smith, Desi Murphy and “Jojo” for their help, so far!

Though I’ll never put Substantive content behind a paywall, if you have the means to give me a boost, please consider joining my Patreon community!

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