Pioneer’s Transparency Update: Sunshine Week Edition

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To some, it may seem insignificant in that police departments have wide discretion in responding to public records requests, or that a school district can charge exorbitant fees to the public for document requests. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that state agencies routinely respond to public records requests well after the mandated ten days, or that our state legislature exempted itself from sunshine laws.

But when you view government transparency through a wider lens, these seemingly minute events or business-as-usual exemptions take on grave collective significance.

Our democracy is only as strong as our will to hold government accountable.  Lack of disclosure stunts the public discourse that is essential in a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

We press on with the transparency mantra with the hope that the public will stand up and demand its due.

Earlier this Sunshine Week, the Boston Herald, Boston Globe and Patriot Ledger joined forces – a powerful statement in its own right – to condemn the cloak of secrecy Secretary of State Galvin cast over the government, on the eve of a week devoted to promoting transparency. The media is doing its job.  The public’s role is first to be outraged and then to demand sunshine.

Once again during Sunshine Week, we took a look back at a sampling of Pioneer’s transparency work since the last Sunshine Week. Here are some highlights:

RECENT SUNSHINE

Want  sunlight on your town’s finances? Don’t forget your sunglasses because this is bright!

Earlier this week, we launched MassAnalysis.com, a high-powered tool designed to help you understand your community and benchmark it against its peers. There is no better place on the Internet to make these municipal comparisons and it’s free!

Debunking myths isn’t easy, but if anyone can, it’s our Research Director, Greg Sullivan

They said the T was underfunded. They said it again and again. The public believed them.  Along comes Greg Sullivan to shine light on how the T stacks up to other transit agencies nation-wide.  Turns out the T is tops in funding based on the most commonly used measures. Myth crushed.

Oh, and how about all those jobs the $1 billion life science initiative was supposed to create? Greg Sullivan dug into that one, too, and he discovered the number was a meager 55.

Greg has done that and much, much more – some even call him Mr. Sunshine!

If you ride the commuter rail, we have all you need to know about its operating agreement but were too cold or late to ask

Through MuckRock, the public records requesting service that Pioneer finds so helpful, we obtained the T’s operating agreement with Keolis, the T’s commuter rail operator. We invited you to sift through its contents and started the process with a blog on how the T fines Keolis for late or canceled trains. Be sure to check out the requirements for snow removal.  From my perspective, compliance was weak at best. MuckRock does fine work indeed – check out their latest blog.

And speaking of the T,  just how transparent is its pension fund?

Opaque at best. Pioneer sought greater transparency for this “private” retirement fund and some of what we sought has been opened up.  But there’s more work to do on this one.

Why is it that the legislature is so comfortable in exempting itself from open meeting and public records law?

For citizens to be truly engaged and active in a government of the people, they need to know more but a two-decades old court decision dropped a roadblock that hampers us today.  Read up on the Lambert decision here.

When MuckRock teams with Pioneer, government secrecy doesn’t stand a chance, like the work we did on military equipment being transferred to police departments and making the case for why the Secretary of State hinders transparency.

And why should policy makers’ disclosures of financial interest be such a challenge to obtain unlike many other states where they are easily accessible through the Internet?

Pioneer teamed with MuckRock to write an opinion piece in the Boston Herald pointing out the negative impact of having to go through hoops just to get basic information to understand policy makers’ interests. We can’t afford to be complacent with business-as-usual in the state house.

Transparency is a year-round pursuit. Check out Pioneer’s resolutions for the New Year

Why shouldn’t the state create its own CBO to analyze the cost of bills BEFORE they are passed? Why should the legislature and the administrative functions of the judicial branch be subject to open meeting and public records laws? Massachusetts has a long way to go and heeding our resolutions is a good way to get there.

Pioneer is training the next generation of transparency enthusiasts. Go get ’em Team Pioneer!

And can our interns and Northeastern coop students uncover and write about very cool things! Like about myths about charter schools, the miserably opaque month of July 2014, the transparency exemptions granted to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA), the inflated claims of the MCCA, lessons on failed hotel subsidies, the cost of water and a positive effort towards transparency made by Governor Patrick.

NEXT MONTH’S SUNSHINE

Want to be your own detective and figure out just how bad a mess the T is in?  Have we got a microscope for you.

Pioneer will launch a website that provides reams of data to compare the MBTA to transit agencies across the country.  Like all of our web tools – it will be free and user friendly.  Stay tuned as we put on the final touches.

CHECK PIONEER’S TRANSPARENCY TOOLBOX

Find out trends in salaries through MassOpenBooks.org.  It’s also good practice to visit MassReportCards before you make that offer on a house – we’ll be updating the site with the most recent MCAS data shortly. If you want to see how well your community is saving for its retired or yet-to-be retired employees, check out MassPensions.com – we’ve added features like asset allocation, financial condition and member information. We’ll soon be adding transparency grades for each system. We’ve also updated our Munishare website – a a place for cities and towns to share information and ideas peer-to-peer, so they can borrow the best ideas from each other.

Oh, and of course our latest site MassAnalysis.com, hot off the developer’s computer!

Don’t worry – you’ll be the first to know when our MBTA website is ready.

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