Have a public records story you would like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your experience trying to obtain information through a state public records law.
By Colman M. Herman
During Charlie Baker’s successful 2014 campaign for Massachusetts governor, I asked a top aide whether Baker would support legislation that would subject the governor’s office to the state’s public records law. I got smoke and mirrors for a response.
”Charlie has already proposed serious initiatives to make state government more transparent and will reexamine the practices regarding public records requests when elected,” Tim Buckley told me at the time. (Buckley has remained on with Baker as a senior advisor.)
Sad to say, it has been my experience and that of others that Baker has repeatedly refused to release records for public scrutiny particularly when they cut too close to the bone. Here’s a recent case in point:
Baker, a man noted for his management skills, has been the subject of much criticism for how he mishandled the multiple rollouts of the COVID-19 vaccines.
In that regard, I wanted to know what Baker’s constituents were writing to him. So I filed a public records request with his office for copies of the relevant communications.
I included this statement in my records request.
“I understand that the governor asserts that he is not covered by the Massachusetts Public Records Law. It is my hope, though, that in the interest of transparency, the governor will produce the responsive communications.”
Predictably, my plea fell on deaf ears.
“Any records responsive to your request have been withheld consistent with the public records laws as interpreted by the Supreme Judicial Court,” Baker’s legal office wrote to me.
It’s no big secret that Attorney General Maura Healey wants to be our next governor — last month alone, in fact, she raised more than $100,000 for her potential campaign. So I asked Healey whether she thinks Baker should have produced the communications from his constituents, and if she were governor, would she have released them.
“We aren’t going to comment on this without knowing all the details,” Healey’s chief spokesperson, Jillian Fennimore, told me. I have no idea why Fennimore would say that — after all, I gave her copies of both my public records request and Baker’s response denying the request.
Fennimore added: “AG Healey supports updating the public records law to cover the governor’s office.”
The problem with that is that the Massachusetts legislature has shown absolutely no inclination to introduce legislation that would subject the governor to the public records law (never mind covering itself). In fact, a special legislative commission formed to study the issue of covering the governor disbanded without making a single recommendation.
So I then asked Healey if she herself would consider filing legislation now or if she were to become governor that would subject the governor to the public records law.
More smoke and mirrors. Healey’s spokeswoman avoided the question, and instead said, “We would review any specific legislative proposals/bills that modernize the Public Records Law.”
Memo to Healey and Baker: Just because you can keep something secret doesn’t mean you should.
Colman M. Herman is a freelance writer and reporter living in Boston.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.