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 on shutting down a city for two weeks. The request was promptly acknowledged, and we eagerly awaited a response.
We were still waiting, but a lot less eagerly, when a month went by and we hadn’t heard anything. We were in the midst of drafting an appeal when the news broke that Boston had won the bid, and that Boston 2024 would be hosting a press conference where it would formerly release the reports and proposals it had submitted – the same reports and proposals we had asked for through the legally mandated process of a public records request. We were a little miffed.
After that press conference we finally heard from the mayor’s office that the records had been located and were attached. Excited to see the kind of documents that would be left out of a sanitized press release, we opened the attachment and found … the exact same documents included in the release.
Oddly enough, no emails were included. At first we thought it was an oversight on the Mayor’s part, or that they would be included in a later batch. But upon re-reading the accompanying email, there it was on no uncertain terms: “These are all the documents in the City’s possession responsive to your request.” Emails? What emails? We don’t need no stinking emails.
The idea that the entire Olympics bidding process went from a glimmer in John Fish’s eye to a fast-approaching reality without generating a single non-verbal communication of any kind strains credulity, to put it politely. When we echoed this sentiment to the mayor’s office, we didn’t get any response. When we told the groups opposed to the Olympic bid, we got a very different, very loud response.
After a couple weeks of public demand for these “missing” emails, Walsh’s office got back to us, and every other reporter who had made a records request, with miraculous news: part of the original attachment had been left off by mistake. Sure enough, that attachment contained the emails.
While this announcement didn’t do anything for the office’s wounded credibility – any teacher reading this will recognize the “forgot the attachment” gambit – getting more documents is rarely a bad thing. Even arduous, agonizing transparency is better than no transparency at all.
Then we read the emails.
In the 45 pages released by the mayor’s office, there’s not a single communication either to or from the Mayor regarding, say, the prospect of hosting the 2024 Olympics, and wherever costs or challenges that might create. There is, however, a series of excited missives by aides who can’t wait to get started on Ring-ifying the city, two messages left on the Mayor’s hotline with enthusiastic support for the games, and a draft of Walsh’s speech to the US Olympic Committee.
A line from the Mayor’s speech reads “there is no real opposition in Boston” to the Olympics, and at least as far as these emails are concerned, that’s true. The tone is universally, oppressively positive, with absolutely no indication that everybody at City Hall isn’t 110% behind this idea and ready to give it their all.
RIP credulity, we knew you well.
Regardless of how your feel about Boston hosting the Olympics, you at the very least can’t deny it’s a controversial and divisive, with some estimates putting the city within a hair’s breath of being evenly split on the issue. The idea that there was not even discussion of potential drawbacks to the proposal is beyond ludicrous. Could Mayor Walsh’s office have cherry-picked the emails it wanted to disclose, in effect turning a public records request in a piece of pro-Olympics propaganda?
Let’s hope not.
The goal of transparency, and the whole reason we have public records laws, is so the public can hold its representatives accountable. Treating it as yet another mouthpiece for a particular agenda is an affront to a very cornerstone of democracy, and it should be treated like the abomination it is.
Recognize the opposition, Mayor Walsh. Release the emails.
J. Patrick Brown is the Editor of Muckrock.com, an organization which facilitates public record requests and serves as an independent news source covering government transparency issues nationwide.