For the past several months, the Pioneer Institute and MuckRock have been gathering figures of police salary and overtime pay across Massachusetts. While most departments have been accommodating and helpful in acquiring this data on how law enforcement allocate their tax-funded budgets, the City Solicitor of Somerville insists that routine documents will cost a small fortune to release to the public.
Beginning in July, Pioneer and MuckRock first began requesting budget data from police departments in the twenty largest cities and towns across Massachusetts. Specifically, we’re gathering figures on officer pay for the past two fiscal years, including both overtime and salary payments.
This is an incredibly routine request, and the majority of departments have treated it as such. Four, including the Boston and Watertown police, provided the data at no charge, while departments in Lawrence and Brookline released it for less than $15.
The City of Somerville, meanwhile, insists that compiling this data will cost $780.
On August 9, Somerville police acknowledged that the city’s payroll system contains both categories of data, as would be expected of even the most basic municipal accounting software. But nearly a month later, Somerville City Solicitor Frank Wright estimated that such a simple database query would take the city’s payroll manager twenty-four hours to complete, at an hourly rate of $32.50.
Such an estimate is absurdly high. Basic information about employee pay ought to be easily accessible to any professional payroll manager. This information is routinely compiled for annual budgets, as Mr. Wright has himself noted in correspondence with MuckRock. But even after several attempts to come to a more reasonable estimate of fees, Solicitor Wright refuses to revise his estimate.
The presumption of openness is central to public records, particularly when it comes to financial accountability of government officials. The Massachusetts public records law allows agencies to recoup the real cost of fulfilling records requests, but not to hold public data to ransom in the way Somerville is doing. Pioneer and MuckRock will continue to challenge these kind of heavy-handed tactics that run so counter to transparency.