Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is a Fast Learner

By Colman M. Herman

During Charlie Baker’s bid for governor last year, I asked his campaign if Baker were elected would he, like his predecessor, Gov. Deval Patrick, make the claim that he’s not covered by the Massachusetts public records law.

“Charlie . . . will reexamine the practices regarding public records requests when elected,” his communications director Tim Buckley told me.

This just in: The reexamination has been completed. No surprises here. Baker too is now claiming that he is shielded from having to comply with the public records law. Besides Baker and Patrick, Governors Mitt Romney and Paul Cellucci also said they were not covered.

I asked Baker at the end of January to provide a copy of his private meeting schedule since assuming office this year.  His deputy chief legal counsel, Cathy Judd-Stein, responded that she would look into my request. I got the records three weeks later.

In her original letter, Judd-Stein noted that according to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, “The Office of the Governor is not one of the instrumentalities enumerated in [the public records law] and therefore its records are not subject to disclosure.” She was referring to the SJC’s Lambert v. Judicial Nominating Council decision, which ruled that questionnaires filled out by prospective judges are not public records.

“Notwithstanding Lambert,” Judd-Stein continued, “it is the voluntary practice of the Office to consider and to respond to public records requests on a case-by-case basis.”

That is the same boilerplate language that showed up in every single letter Patrick sent out in response to public records requests.

Veteran media attorney Robert Bertsche, a board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition, has written that Patrick’s — and by extension Baker’s — claim that he was not covered by the public records law was “dubious” and his voluntary consideration of public records requests an “apparent act of noblesse oblige.”

No one has legally challenged the governors’ interpretation of Lambert, but it is clear that they are interpreting the ruling very broadly in order to keep information from the public.

The plain language of the Massachusetts public records law says it applies to “any officer or employee of any . . . executive office . . . of the commonwealth.”

Last time I looked, the governor’s office is an executive office.

Herman is a freelance writer and reporter living in Boston.

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