Three Strikes Against Transparency in Massachusetts – A Rough Start for July!

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By: Elena Eimert and Michael Crupi

What do the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), and the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) have in common? Sadly, they are all under fire for a lack of transparency. Let’s take a look:

1)      The BRA is infamous for cronyism, and getting the public entity to be more transparent has been like pulling teeth. In an attempt to clean up the agency, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had the accounting firm KPMG perform an audit, the results of which were recently released. But Walsh is not pleased with the report, calling it “weak” and “shallow.” He says another audit will likely be needed to unearth more information on the fees the BRA collects from developers. It’s disappointing that the first audit was short on information, but at least Walsh is showing his commitment to reform by not letting this issue slide.

2)      The secrecy surrounding the MBTA’s retirement fund (MBTARF) is old news. Although the T receives public money, its retirement fund is considered private and therefore is not subject to the transparency and ethics rules that normally govern public pensions. Last year a law was passed to eliminate this rather surprising definition of ”private” and hold the MBTARF accountable to higher ethical standards. Unfortunately the legislature has recently voted to repeal the measure and replace it with a watered-down version. While Governor Patrick should be congratulated for vetoing the repeal, it’s unsettling that the legislature is trying to walk back much needed MBTARF reforms. The fund’s finances have deteriorated in recent years, but the public does not know why due to a lack of transparency. Sadly, even the MBTA employees who rely on the fund for their retirements are kept from knowing why the financial health of their pension fund is worsening. Suggestions on how to improve accountability at the MBTARF (and ultimately its finances) can be found here.

3)      Completing this sorry trilogy is the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. The very public and tragic case of Jeremiah Oliver earlier this year opened the floodgates to reveal many other cases, spanning from 2001 to 2011, of children dying while their families were working with the DCF. While the press has been clamoring, the DCF has remained tight lipped. Officials refuse to reveal how many children under DCF care have died from 2011-2013 and the agency has been under fire for its pricey, and some argue intentionally slow, responses to public records requests. Things have gotten better since the resignation of Olga Roche as commissioner at the end of April, but there is still a large backlog of information requests and pervasive communication and accountability issues. Governor Patrick sees many of the problems originating from an overworked staff (the caseloads of MA social workers have been consistently 2-5 cases above the recommended 14/15, by the Child Welfare League of America), but many think there are also flaws to found in the organizational and managerial systems in place.

We hope there are sunnier days ahead for the Commonwealth, but right now darkness is making the headlines.  The trend could reverse with House Bill 3945, which would significantly strengthen the legal rights of individuals looking to access to public records. The bill, which has sat with the House Ways and Means Committee since late February, would finally give some teeth to demands for public records, including potential fines for slow response times, increased internet access to information, and the elimination of exorbitant fees.  Otherwise, the state is sure to strike out again (and again).

 

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