Entries by MuckRock

Massachusetts towns reveal all the details of bids for Amazon’s second headquarters

By Adanya Lustig Massachusetts towns are disclosing their bids for Amazon’s second headquarters, when many places across the country refuse to. Everywhere from Halifax, Canada to Los Angeles is vying for Amazon’s heart (and dollars) in the semi-public bidding war started in September, but many towns across the country won’t disclose what they’re offering Amazon in return for the second headquarters. The tech giant received 238 bids from North America, at least 26 of which came from Massachusetts. MuckRock is requesting copies of the bids from as many public entities across the country as they can, and receiving many rejections. However, Boston, Somerville, Worcester and Massachusetts made their proposals public proactively, and other Massachusetts towns have released copies of their […]

Why do Massachusetts municipalities make meeting transparency harder than it has to be?

Executive session is where local governing boards interview police chiefs and school superintendents, negotiate with unions, discuss litigation, talk about misconduct by town employees, and conduct other delicate business that is kept temporarily private for legitimate reasons. Once the purpose of the meeting is resolved, the minutes are supposed to be reviewed by the town board or city council, and any minutes not exempt under the Public Records Law are supposed to be released. The goal of my project – the Closed Meeting Crash – is to make the inner workings of local government more visible by obtaining five years worth of executive session minutes from all 351 municipalities in Massachusetts. So far, I’ve requested Bristol, Plymouth, Middlesex, and Barnstable […]

Judicial Branch Holds Transparency in Contempt

In yet another Massachusetts public records milestone, the Center for Public Integrity gave the Commonwealth an “F” for judicial accountability, citing the large number of exemptions that stonewall public access to court records. But what does that really mean? Now, of all of Massachusetts’ egregious public records exemptions (and there are plenty), some exemptions that pertain to judicial records would, at least in theory, actually make sense. Sensitive legal proceedings are textbook examples of the kinds of records that shouldn’t be made freely available to the public. Doing so would undermine the integrity of the legal process. That said, there’s a big difference between a judicial record and a record in possession of the judicial branch. Back in 2014, after […]

Dropping Public Records Law Exemption is a Clear Win for Governor Baker

Currently, there are only two states that exempt the office of the Executive from their public records laws. One is Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder is embroiled in a scandal regarding how much he did or did not know about the lead-contaminated water in Flint. Outrage over the crisis has led to a national call to end the exemption and sparked a growing discussion about whether public sector accountability is possible without transparency. The other is Massachusetts. As we’ve written about before, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) opinion in Lambert provided the governor with a discretionary exemption to public records law. Although governors rarely deny public records requests, they – including Governor Charlie Baker – point out that they […]

How Responsive Are Massachusetts State Agencies?

According to Massachusetts public records law, an agency has ten days to respond to a request. According to anybody who’s actually filed a Massachusetts public records request, the actual wait time varies greatly, with data complied from MuckRock requests putting the average response time at a whopping 79 days – just a little over two months. As an experiment, last October MuckRock and Pioneer asked ten Massachusetts state agencies for their FY15 internal operating budget, as well as the requested budget for FY16. This was specifically intended to be as straightforward as possible – a version of the information is available on Mass.gov, and we decided that we would treat an agency linking to that information as having fulfilled the […]

Two States, Two Bills, Two Different Takes on Transparency

This week, Florida State Representative Greg Steube and Senator Rene Garcia introduced bills that would amend existing Sunshine Laws, making the awarding of attorney’s fees discretionary in cases where agencies were found to be illegally denying access to public records. Currently requires legal fees to be awarded in such cases. Predictably, the bills were met with outrage from the state’s journalists and Open Government community, who saw them as a baldfaced attempt to impede accountability and a direct assault on a citizen’s guarantee of access to public records. Meanwhile, Massachusetts legislation that promises to bring long-overdue public records reform is pending in the Senate after easily passing the House in November. Like the new Florida bills, it leaves the decision […]

Massachusetts Public Records Reform Shouldn’t Make Delay the Law of the Land

By Michael Morisy Over the past few years, something unusual has quietly happened when it comes to public access: Small changes for the better. But while legislation passed by the House includes some great and much needed improvements – it fails to address, and in some case worsens – Massachusetts public records law’s problems, leaving the state dangerously behind its peers. It’s worth acknowledging what has gone right in the Bay State. For one, the results of the past year’s worth of public records appeals are now posted online by the Supervisor of Public Records. This is a tremendous resource for requesters and agencies, and a much appreciated policy change from an office that once claimed it didn’t keep an […]

September’s Come and Gone – and Where’s Public Records Reform?

How fitting is it that a bill meant to strengthen our anemic public records law morphed into a perfect illustration of just how sorry government transparency is in Massachusetts? As I wrote about at the beginning of the month, public records reform came in with a roar at the start of summer. The combination of journalists, open government advocates, and even everyday concerned citizens who packed the State House, bringing testimonies of the abuse, incompetence, and neglect they’ve experienced first hand made one thing clear – we needed change, and we needed it now. Massachusetts should take its rightful place as pack leader when it comes to good government, not a straggler, lingering among the worst of states. And it […]

The Clock is Ticking on Massachusetts Public Record Reform

From the Green Line extension’s woes, to the narrowly dodged disaster of the Olympics, to even the text messages and emails at the heart of BradyGate, it’s hard to think of a time where transparency has played a more prominent role in Massachusetts public discourse. If the Commonwealth finds itself in need of a new motto, “Trust, but verify” would make a strong contender. As is all too often the case, despite the critical role transparency has played in shaping the events of summer, and the lip service being paid to it by people and politicians alike, the mechanisms that ensure public disclosure remain outdated and obsolete. Unless we act fast, we’ll lose the best chance we’ve had at fixing […]

Baker Public Records Announcement a Great Start – So Long as it’s a Start

These last few weeks have been hectic for transparency advocates in Massachusetts. Shortly after the disappointing announcement that the vote for public records reform would be bumped to September, Governor Charlie Baker finally addressed the subject, proposing a series of sweeping, state-level reforms that would be implemented in the next couple of weeks. After the previous Governor’s abysmal track record on the subject, the news was as surprising as it was welcome. Good for you, Governor. But re-examined a couple weeks later in the sobering light of day, the proposed reforms come off less as a great leap forward and more as a small step and a reminder of how far we have to go. This is not to say […]

For Massachusetts Public Records law, a Little Progress Goes a Long Way

Earlier this month, Massachusetts transparency advocates celebrated a rare win when the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) – a regional SWAT team which covers the greater Boston area – agreed to be considered a public entity, and therefore subject to public records laws. If that doesn’t sound like much cause for celebration – why wouldn’t a police force be considered a public entity? – then you’ll be further underwhelmed to hear that this only came after a year-long suit with the ACLU that cost the taxpayer (yes, you) $30,000. NEMLAC’s argument, that is was technically a non-profit that just so happened to run by law enforcement officials operating in their official capacity, was laughable on its face, and […]

(Massachusetts) Public Records has an Email Problem

Imagine going to your local bakery and ordering a loaf of bread. After a few minutes, you’re unceremoniously handed a thick, charred lump of carbon in a paper bag. When you protest, the baker explains that yeast is expensive to source, difficult to use correctly, and takes time to rise. If you’re going to be unreasonable and insist on leavened bread, they’ll make it for you – but it’ll cost you, you’d better be ready to wait, and there’s no guarantee that what you get is going to be any good. As outlandish as that scenario sounds, it’s not far removed from the reality of being a public records requester who makes the mistake of asking for an agency’s emails. […]

A Tale of Two Transparencies

Recently, we wrote about the redemption of Secretary of State William Galvin after a records request for communications between his office and the Office of the Attorney General revealed the frustrating brush-offs he had received from the previous two AGs. Shortly thereafter, we received a response to an identical request we had made to the AG’s office. Since both requests were asking for the same documents, the correspondence should have been identical; what was received sheds light on how each office handled the request. The AG’s office provided mostly their own letters to Secretary Galvin’s office and neglected to provide the responses or original referral letters from Secretary Galvin’s office. In comparison, Secretary Galvin’s office provided almost all correspondence between […]

The High Cost of Records Requests at the MBTA Hits a New Low

As we’ve written about before, in Massachusetts your legal right to transparency at times comes with a fairly hefty premium. Agencies routinely use exorbitant fee estimates as a way to get out of having to fulfill “burdensome” (read: embarrassing) requests, and no agency has been more consistently blatant about the practice than the MBTA. Whether it’s tracking down their policies for firing an employee, rounding up emails of their departing GM, or even simply finding complaints about the infamous “strollercat,” the MBTA has successfully fought each request on the grounds that the process would be difficult, and therefore prohibitively expensive. For the requester, that is. The MBTA has hit a new high (and low) with their response for a request […]

When Transparency Redeems: The Unexpected Case of Bill Galvin

Dear Secretary of State William F. Galvin: On several occasions Pioneer Institute has criticized your perceived inaction in responding to complaints about various agencies’ non-compliance with public records law. On those occasions we opined that inaction by your office had the effect of promoting a culture that did not take the state’s duty to provide transparent information seriously enough. More recently, we wrote about emails between you and the Attorney General‘s office — emails which you claimed would validate your long-held position that you were a dedicated public servant stymied by outside forces. Having now read those emails, we agree with you and stand corrected. The records your office provided to us clearly show that previous attorneys general, the final […]

Galvin Wants $70 to Show He Fought For Transparency

On several occasions, both MuckRock and the Pioneer Institute have made their dissatisfaction with Secretary of State William Galvin’s role as Supervisor of Public Records perfectly clear. Few officials have worked harder to protect the government from the public’s right to transparency, ruling time and time against disclosure. Spurred by his abysmal handling of a request for officers’ drunken driving records – ruling that police are entitled to withhold whatever criminal records they choose to withhold without oversight, on the eve of Sunshine Week, no less – dissatisfaction with Galvin appears to be catching, with media outlets all over Massachusetts crying foul. In response to this increased scrutiny, Galvin’s gone on the defensive, arguing that, whatever appearances, his actions were […]

Mayor Walsh’s office turn public records requests about the Olympics into PR

Stop me if you’ve heard this one already. A prominent politician conveniently can’t find any emails related to a controversial topic. Then, following a period of public rancor, s/he magically produces said emails, with all the controversial bits removed. Sure seems like that’s been happening a lot lately, huh? Shortly after it was announced that Boston was a frontrunner to be the U.S. Olympic Committee’s choice to compete to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, MuckRock (along with a number of Massachusetts journalists) put in a public records request to Mayor Walsh’s office for all emails between Walsh and the Boston 2024 organizing committee, as well as any reports or proposals that one would imagine would be generated when you’re planning […]

Help Us Sift through the MBTA’s Contract with Keolis

Last March, French transportation company Keolis won a $2.6 billion contract to run the MBTA’s commuter rail. A little under a year late, and what was shaping up to be a promising relationship has quickly gone sour, with the MBTA levying six-figure fines for poor service and worse conditions as early as November – months before the nightmare of Massachusetts’ record snowfall that would cripple the service, leaving commuters stranded and fuming. What happened? That’s what we want you to help us find out. Shortly after the deal was finalized, Pioneer worked with MuckRock to get a copy of the contract between the MBTA and Keolis. Since the snow – and the scrutiny – hit, we’ve been reading over to […]

How an Obscure Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ruling Crippled Public Records Law

Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? What color was Napoleon’s white horse? What constitutes a public record under Massachusetts public records law? On the surface, all of these seem like straightforward questions with equally straightforward answers. However, anyone whose been on the receiving end of those first two gotchas – Grant and his daughters, grey – know that what sounds straightforward can be anything but. Let’s take a closer look at the third question. Now, on the straightforward surface level, public records should constitute any records created by a Massachusetts public official while performing their public duties, right? Well, according to Massachusetts Supreme Court, wrong. It depends a great deal which public official you’re asking, and whether or not they’re in […]

Our Transparency Resolutions for 2015

A new year lies ahead, and with it comes new opportunities to right past wrongs. For transparency advocates in Massachusetts, those opportunities couldn’t come soon enough. After years of truly abysmal public records policy, 2015 is shaping up to be a valuable opportunity to not only get Massachusetts up to the national standard, but to set an example in open government that other states will follow. Here’s what we’re hoping to see in 2015: Create a State CBO We want to reaffirm our proposal to advance true legislative transparency through the statutory creation of a State Congressional Budget Office.  The Commonwealth should establish an independent office to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for bills that would either raise revenue or involve the […]

In Massachusetts, Asking Agencies to Do Their Jobs Can Be Expensive

Despite its name, the Freedom of Information Act can set you back quite a bit. To cut departmental costs and prevent abuse, every incarnation of public records law on both national and state levels includes some form of provision which allows for the agency to charge requesters a “nominal” fee for search, processing, and reproduction of responsive documents, to be paid prior to any work being done on the request. With a few exceptions, such as fee waivers for journalists/documents deemed to be in the public interest (more on that later) and some sort of hourly/page count minimum before fees are incurred, the more-or-less standardized formula for cost estimates goes like this: the hourly rate of the lowest-paid employee of […]

Boston Herald: Let’s put more light in sunshine law

By J. Patrick Brown and Mary Connaughton. This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Herald on Oct. 30, 2014. As election day fast approaches, the fever pitch of coverage is a not-so-gentle reminder that it is our civic duty to learn as much as possible about the issues and the candidates, so that when we pull that lever on Nov. 4 we know that we made an informed decision. But the voting booth curtain swings both ways. Just as we are expected to read cover to cover the little red magazine that Secretary of State Bill Galvin mailed us, those seeking office — as well as those currently occupying it — must answer the questions the electorate poses to them. “What’s […]

When it comes to Public Records, What’s a Fantasy in Massachusetts is a Reality in Florida

Those who dabble in public records know there’s no such thing as a “painless” records request – only varying degrees of “relatively less painful.” Even the most straightforward process is still a process, one which involves tracking down the right contact, formulating the wording just so, and waiting to hear back a (potentially inconclusive) response. There’s a reason why we at MuckRock require users to commit to a minimum of at least five requests – it’s not uncommon for somebody’s first FOIA experience to be so frustrating that it ends up being their last. It goes without saying that the process could be much improved. What isn’t being said, but should be, especially in Massachusetts, is that there are people […]

When It Comes to Disclosing Public Official’s Financial Interests, Mass is in the Sad Minority

Last week, we looked at some of the bureaucratic obstacles that transparency advocates in Massachusetts can find themselves faced with, eventually singling out the Ethics Commission’s Statements of Financial Interests (SFIs) as a particularly egregious example. Not only does the Commission require you to fill out a completely superfluous additional form and attach a copy of your driver’s license (both flagrant violations of state public records law) but they then share this information with the individual you’re requesting information on – something utterly without precedent in public records, and really, intimidation by any other name. This week, we’ll see how this policy compares to SFIs in other states, and how it touches upon the larger issue of Mass’ commitment to […]

In Mass, records are available on a “Why-Do-You-Need-To-Know” basis

Last week, MuckRock journalist Todd Feathers wrote about a recent change to Boston public records policy, introduced by the Walsh administration, which required that members of the media submit their requests through the City Hall PR office … even if those requests had nothing whatsoever to do with City Hall. It’s to assist in the processing, you see. If that seems a bit off, that’s only because it completely is – requiring requests to go through some sort of external vetting process that doesn’t even involve the agency you’re requesting records from is a clear violation of Massachusetts public records law: “Every person having custody of any public record, as defined in clause Twenty-sixth of section seven of chapter four, […]

Why do Massachusetts police departments have tanks? And more importantly, why are they hiding them?

Ever since media coverage of the Ferguson protests brought us images of local law enforcement armed with weapons and gear that looked more at home in Fallujah than a suburb of St. Louis, the increased militarization of the police has been a topic of much controversy and debate. However, while the national scrutiny is new, the practice of state and local agencies stockpiling military-grade ordnance – and the Pentagon’s program that makes it possible – has been happening for over a decade. Originally started by the Department of Defense in the mid-to-late nineties, and now handled by the Defense Logistics Agency, the 1033 program, as it is known, makes excess and obsolete military equipment – everything from hand tools to […]

For transparency advocates, with friends like Galvin …

A report in the Globe last week made public what those who deal with government transparency in Massachusetts knew all too well – the state’s terrible reputation for public records laws is well-deserved, and only made worse by the lack of help, and not direct hindrance, of the Secretary of State, William Galvin. Galvin oversees the Supervisor of Public Records Office, which in theory serves in the public interest as an open records watchdog, ensuring state and local agencies properly fulfill requests in a timely manner and don’t redact more than the law-mandated minimum. As we wrote back in 2012, in practice, the SPR has served as yet another obstacle between the requester and their documents. Though there were a […]