Public records and the 2022 election
2022 could be a big year for public records in Massachusetts — it’s an election year, and several offices that have a significant impact on access to public records are up for grabs. There’s so much to say about the election that I won’t be able to get to all of it this time around, so please subscribe if this issue is important to you.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth
The secretary of the commonwealth’s office is responsible for oversight of the public records law. If you’re facing the all-too-common problem of a state or local government agency refusing to comply with a records request, your primary recourse is to file an administrative appeal with the public records division, which is headed by a secretary appointee called the supervisor of public records.
The incumbent secretary of the commonwealth is William F. Galvin, who has held the position since 1995 — nearly 30 years. Galvin announced earlier today that he is running for reelection. There’s a lot to say about Bill Galvin, but I’m going to have to save that for a future newsletter — for now, it should suffice to say that he has faced intense criticism for his handling of public records for many years.
So far, two challengers have announced that they are running for the secretary’s office.
Tanisha Sullivan, a lawyer and the president of the Boston NAACP, is running against Galvin in the Democratic primary. Here’s her background, per the State House News Service:
A University of Virginia alumna who earned graduate degrees in law and business from Boston College, Sullivan spent most of her legal career representing life sciences companies. As a volunteer, she has focused on improving opportunities for workers, small business owners, and communities, according to her campaign. She took the volunteer job leading the local NAACP chapter in 2017, helming an organization committed to eliminating systemic racism and discrimination.
Raised in Brockton, Sullivan’s family has roots in Boston, where her father retired in 2014 as the school leader at the O’Bryant School. Her mother worked in media before opening a home daycare, according to her campaign, and "helping connect and amplify Black-owned businesses across New England as publisher of the Black Pages of New England." In her launch video Sullivan cited inspiration from her parents.
Sullivan’s career at Genzyme, now Sanofi Genzyme, dates to 2009, according to LinkedIn. Her current job there is associate general counsel, industrial affairs. From 2013 to 2015, she was chief equity officer for the Boston Public Schools.
Sullivan is also a member of the board of advisors at WGBH, according to LinkedIn, and a member of the board of advisors at the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy, and was state coordinator of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority for six years, ending in 2020.
Sullivan mentioned public records in a YouTube video announcing her candidacy, saying, “I’ll do more to open our government and help make it accountable to you by ensuring the accessibility and transparency of our public records.”
This talk of “do[ing] more” is an implicit criticism of Galvin. But so far, it’s not clear what Sullivan would do differently from the long-serving incumbent. Her campaign website doesn’t mention any specific ideas about public records, and she hasn’t provided any clear answers to the media.
During an interview on GBH’s Greater Boston, host Jim Braude asked Sullivan if she supported changing the public records law to remove the exceptions for the governor’s office, legislature, and judiciary.
Sullivan’s answer was very confusing:
We absolutely need to do all we can to ensure that we have an open, transparent, and accessible government. Again, this is about a full democracy. And so we need to have the conversation about what information is available and what information is not. But we need to have that conversation in partnership with stakeholders, in partnership with community. You know, my work with the NAACP and other grassroots organizations has certainly been about tackling tough issues like this one that are complex. But we do that first by connecting with those who are most adversely impacted.
Braude interrupted, saying he couldn’t think “of any constituency” that would support maintaining the exceptions. He pressed for a clear answer: “I repeat, are you willing to say you’ll lead the charge to end that and cause us not to be the outlier?”
Sullivan was noncommittal:
What I’m willing to say at this moment is that I will lead the charge in helping to ensure that we are having the conversation. … We need to do all we can to ensure that public records are accessible, transparent, and that we have in place the supports to ensure that folks know how to use that information. At the same time, we need to ensure that we — especially in the Big Data era — we need to make sure that we have the appropriate security levels in place to protect data.
If Sullivan has given public records much thought, it’s impossible to tell from what she has said so far — and that is a real shame, especially since she made a point of bringing the issue up when she announced her candidacy.
I reached out to Sullivan’s campaign, but so far it has not made her available for an interview or provided answers to a short list of written questions about public records that I sent.
The other candidate for secretary is Republican Rayla Campbell, a Donald Trump supporter who can be seen in a photo on her campaign website wearing a Thin Blue Line dress while posing with a bunch of cops behind an “America Backs the Blue” sign.
In 2020, Campbell ran as a write-in candidate for the US House of Representatives. After she failed to get enough signatures to earn a place on the ballot, she sued Bill Galvin — but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected her claims. The race was later won by Ayanna Pressley.
And let’s be real: Campbell does not have a chance of winning this election either. It’s not just that she is a Trump supporter in Blue Massachusetts or that her substantive media attention has thus far been limited to the right-wing New Boston Post — she also has, to put it mildly, a penchant for drama and a lack of decorum.
The year of her last campaign, Republican State Committee member Brock Cordeiro filed a report with Dartmouth Police alleging Campbell threatened him in a voicemail to Tom Mountain, who was then vice chairman of the MassGOP. According to reporting by WBSM, Campbell was upset that Cordeiro had banned her from a Facebook group and said she would “find out where this little motherfucker lives and beat him a new asshole.” I couldn’t find any reporting about the outcome of the police report.
Soon after, Campbell was at a Trump rally in New Bedford, where she yelled taunts through a bullhorn at two young women and got into a brief scuffle with them; the incident was caught on video. Campbell alleged to the New Bedford Police that she was assaulted. According to WBSM, the police department said it intended to file charges against “all parties involved,” but it did not specify any names or charges. Again, I couldn’t find any reporting about the outcome.
Campbell told me via email that, if elected, she would “make sure the people know their rights” and “do a complete overhaul of” the secretary of the commonwealth’s office’s website.
“I will be accessible to the public via email,” she said, contrasting herself with Bill Galvin, who infamously does not have an email account. “I will also be a hands-on secretary. Galvin is not. He’s a misanthrope. Nothing good happens in the shadows so the best disinfectant is sunlight in my opinion.”
Campbell declined to answer a list of written questions about public records that I sent her. She explained: “I can see you are looking for specific answers and information about these critical issues. At this time, I feel it would be best to debate these issues in public against my opponents.” Her website also does not provide any specifics about her views on public records.
Campbell at least has some experience making records requests. The secretary of the commonwealth’s website shows three decisions by the supervisor of public records related to an appeal by Campbell from 2021. She requested documents related to a specific address from the Fall River Police Department. The department declined to provide any records. After the supervisor sided with Campbell, the department turned over a report, but it redacted the document, citing a law that protects information about victims of domestic violence. The supervisor later reviewed the report and found the redactions to be appropriate.
Campbell also told me that she has “made many FOIA requests with the [secretary of the commonwealth’s] office that have gone unanswered,” but she did not elaborate on what she requested. The secretary’s website does not list any appeals related to these requests.
The Attorney General and the Governor
As you’ve no doubt already heard, Attorney General Maura Healey announced that she is running for governor last week. This guarantees that the commonwealth will be electing a new attorney general, which will also have significance for access to public records.
The secretary of the commonwealth’s office has no enforcement power with respect to the public records law. If a government agency refuses to comply with a decision of the supervisor of public records, the supervisor can refer the matter to the attorney general’s office, which can take the lawbreaking agency to court.
Healey’s record on enforcing the public records law merits close attention, and I will have more to say about it in a future newsletter. I recently submitted a records request to her office so that I can report on her full history.
So far, no candidates have formally announced that they are running for the attorney general’s office. As soon as they do, I will reach out to their campaigns with questions.
In 2015, Maura Healey was asked her thoughts on subjecting the governor’s office, legislature, and judiciary to the public records law on GBH’s Boston Public Radio. She responded: “I don’t think that any branch should be categorically exempt from public records law. I think that there may be appropriate and indeed needed exemptions that should apply, but we can craft those.” The wording of her answer seems to suggest she would only be open to the idea if the legislature added new exemptions to the lengthy list of existing ones.
Governors have relied on the 1997 Supreme Judicial Court ruling in Lambert v. Judicial Nominating Council to claim that they are exempt from the public records law. Current Supervisor of Public Records Rebecca Murray, not satisfied with that explanation, referred a Boston Globe appeal to the attorney general’s office in 2017 — but the attorney general’s office, under Healey, sided with the Charlie Baker administration.
Nothing stops governors from honoring records requests voluntarily — and indeed governors have done this on a case-by-case basis since the Lambert decision. But Danielle Allen, a Harvard political science professor who is running for governor as a Democrat, has pledged to comply with all records requests if elected.
“[W]e’ve got to rebuild a system of local journalism of really healthy information,” Allen recently told GBH. “I’m committing the executive branch to adhering to the requirements of the public records act. People deserve really clear, stable information about what’s happening in their government. We’ve got to get that done in order to rebuild trust and rebuild our capacity to govern together effectively.”
I’ve reached out to the candidates for governor with questions about public records, but so far I haven’t heard back from any of them.
That’s all for now. I do have some updates about the projects I mentioned in my last newsletter — but nothing too significant, so I figured it would be better to skip over them and get this newsletter out today. As I mentioned above, I will have more to say about Bill Galvin and Maura Healey in the future, so please subscribe if you haven’t already.