Sullivan responds — but where’s Galvin?
Candidates for state office respond to questions about public records; T&G reporter wins a well-deserved award
As you hopefully already know, it’s an election year — and the election will have a huge impact on access to public records.
On Friday, the left-wing organization Progressive Mass released written questionnaire responses by candidates for attorney general, state auditor, and secretary of the commonwealth — and the group did a great job asking the candidates about their views on public records.
“Progressive Massachusetts reached out to all candidates, inviting them to fill out our comprehensive questionnaire about their policies, priorities, and leadership style. We view these questionnaires as a vital opportunity to educate candidates about issues that matter to progressive voters, get candidates on record, and create a more informed and engaged electorate,” the group said.
The group also hosted an online question-and-answer session with candidates on Saturday.
Although Progressive Mass reached out to all candidates, only Democrats responded to the questionnaires and participated in the live session.
Sullivan Responds — But Where’s Galvin?
Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the Boston NAACP, is running for secretary of the commonwealth. She is the only Democratic primary challenger for William F. Galvin, the entrenched incumbent who is seeking his eighth term as secretary.
The secretary’s office is the most important state office with respect to public records. It is the home of the public records division. This agency, which is headed by an appointee of the secretary called the supervisor of public records, is responsible for hearing all appeals from people who face difficulty obtaining records. The division is also responsible for drafting regulations for access to public records.
Sullivan responded to Progressive Mass’s questionnaire and showed up to the group’s live session. Galvin did not do either.
“We did want to mention beforehand that Mr. Galvin was invited on several occasions and did not respond to our invites,” Zayda Ortiz, a Progressive Mass board member, explained on Saturday.
At the live session, Sullivan was not asked any questions about public records. However, Progressive Mass policy director Jonathan Cohn did ask about how Sullivan would use technology to make information more available to the public.
“So Jonathan, one of the very first things we’re going to do is we’re going to modernize that website. Hallelujah. Wow, how revolutionary,” she said with a laugh. “Low-hanging fruit, right? Because it's not enough for information to be available if it’s not readily accessible.”
She continued: “There’s no reason why [Massachusetts] should not be really an incubator for how technology can be better used to help make democracy more accessible, help make democracy more engaging — meaning helping to connect more people to our government, connecting more people to what’s happening in their communities from a civic engagement standpoint.”
In her response to the questionnaire, Sullivan provided a number of answers about public records.
Sullivan was asked in which area, outside of elections, she thought the secretary’s office could make the most progress. Her answer was access to public records:
An informed public is essential to a working democracy. The Public Records Division is crucial to providing transparency to the workings of our government. Massachusetts still has among the weakest public records laws in the country. I will tirelessly advocate for reform to public records laws to increase transparency and give the public greater access to public records. We need to modernize the systems used by the public to access data, and we need to ensure that we are supporting “everyday” people in raising their understanding of how to use the information.
When asked about her top three priorities, Sullivan listed public records reform along with same-day voter registration, civic engagement, and economic opportunity (yes, those are four priorities).
“All public information should be readily accessible to the public. We need to ensure that any exemption for access to public records is limited to balance individual privacy interests,” she said.
Sullivan was asked to explain her principles and proposals with respect to public records. She did not get into specifics:
Government shouldn’t happen to us; it should happen with us. We need to do more to ensure Massachusetts residents are empowered with reliable access to the information we need to participate and hold our government accountable. As Secretary, I will work to create greater access to and ensure the transparency of our public records, to support a more expansive and inclusive democracy. I want journalists, advocates, and the general public to see the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth as an ally and a champion of transparency as opposed to an obstacle. We need to do all we can to ensure that public records are accessible, transparent, and that we have the support in place to ensure that folks know how to use that information.
Currently, the governor’s office, legislature, and judiciary are exempt from the public records law. Sullivan was asked if these exemptions should be ended.
“Yes,” she responded. “The most powerful public servants in [Massachusetts] can’t continue to routinely deny requests for even the most basic information. They should be subject to the same rules as every other state agency or office.”
Earlier in the campaign, Sullivan was more ambivalent on this issue. In January, she spoke with GBH’s Jim Braude and gave a noncommittal response: “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.”
In February, she told me that she supports “a full review of the exemptions” and that she wants to “ensur[e] that to the extent any exemption remains that it is an exemption that is within the public interest.”
In February, Galvin unveiled a bill that would apply the public records law to the governor’s office. Jim Braude asked Galvin why, after nearly three decades in office, he was only now getting around to proposing the legislation. Galvin responded by falsely claiming that he had already done so in 2015 when he proposed a ballot question to update the public records law.
Galvin’s proposed question would have made some small improvements, but it would not have applied the law to the governor’s office. Galvin’s question, which he introduced after a period of intense media criticism about his handling of public records, did not appear on the ballot because he failed to gather enough signatures.
(Galvin’s bill — SD.2981 — is currently being reviewed by the legislature’s joint committee on state administration and regulatory oversight. I wrote more about the bill here. If you want to contact your state legislator about the bill, you can look up their contact information here. You also might want to contact the members of the committee reviewing the bill.)
Back to the questionnaire: Sullivan was asked about a change in the 2016 public records law that allows state and local governments to contract with private vendors to store records. She responded:
It is critical to reduce all hindrances to accessing public data. Any approach I would take as Secretary of the Commonwealth would include tracking performance of the office or external vendors in delivering services. Delays are unacceptable and would be grounds for terminating external vendor relationships. We would need to extend similar criteria for evaluating internal performance.
Sullivan was asked what steps she would take to increase the availability of data to researchers in academia, foundations, and media. She responded: “An important step to increase access is reform to the public records exemption [sic].” She did not elaborate on which exemptions she wants to change.
After I interviewed Sullivan in February, I noted my disappointment that she was unable to provide specifics about her positions on issues related to public records. Her answers to Progressive Mass don’t really change that assessment. However, I will at least give her credit for answering the group’s questions — something Galvin couldn’t be bothered to do.
When I spoke with Sullivan, she said that the reason she wouldn’t provide specifics was that she was still working on her policy platform. She said she would invite me to a private stakeholder meeting to offer input about public records. The meeting “would be for your informational purposes, not for reporting purposes,” she told me.
Two weeks ago, a campaign volunteer formally invited me to a meeting. However, I declined because it would be private. I have no problem testifying at a public hearing (and have done so in the past), but I don’t like the idea of speaking in private with a candidate for office. Even though I occupy a space between reporting and advocacy, the idea of my work is to make information public — I don’t think it would be good practice to participate in a meeting if I can’t report on it.
In the interest of transparency, I did send the volunteer a list of others to contact.
I’m looking forward to seeing Sullivan’s policy platform when it’s finalized — and I am really looking forward to seeing some debates between her and Galvin.
If you are interested in this year’s election — and if you aren’t, what’s wrong with you? — Sullivan’s response to the questionnaire is worth reading in full. It includes questions about other transparency-related issues, such as the State Archive, state-procurement data, and conflict-of-interest disclosures. And of course, it includes questions about other issues, such as elections.
The attorney general is the second most important state official when it comes to ensuring access to public records. When a municipality or state agency refuses to comply with an order from the supervisor of records, the supervisor can refer the matter to the attorney general’s office. The AGO has the power to enforce the public records law in court by suing municipalities and agencies. Further complicating things, the AGO defends state agencies, and sometimes that includes defending them against public records lawsuits brought by members of the public.
The Progressive Mass questionnaire included a question about how candidates for attorney general would strengthen enforcement of the public records law.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz answered: “In addition to looking at the expansion of public records law, I would ensure that they were complied with just as I did as an attorney for [former] Governor [Deval] Patrick.”
Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan answered: “Ensure that agencies understand the Attorney General’s commitment to enforcement of these laws. I am in the process of bringing claims against municipal entities for not responding to public records requests for data regarding policing, racial disparities in stops and arrests, and police officers’ disciplinary records.” (I emailed Liss-Riordan’s campaign asking for more information about these lawsuits and will provide an update if I hear back.)
Former Obama administration advisor Quentin Palfrey answered: “The AG office should encourage government clients to be forward leaning in response to requests for public records. Transparency is a public good and the AG should set a tone of cooperation and prompt compliance with public records requests. Strategic delay tactics should not be tolerated.”
All three candidates agreed that the governor’s office, legislature, and judiciary should not be exempt from the public records law. The two Democratic candidates for state auditor — former assistant secretary of the state Department of Transportation Chris Dempsey and state Senator Diana DiZoglio — also agreed.
“It is an embarrassment that a state that prides itself on progressive leadership consistently gets an F when it comes to transparency,” DiZoglio added.
The state auditor candidates were also asked what they would do to promote greater data transparency.
DiZoglio gave a short response: “Accountability and transparency are my top priorities, and I will work hard to ensure that academic institutions — and the public at large — obtain the data they need.”
Demsey gave a much longer answer:
I have been a national leader on open data in government. When I served as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Governor Deval Patrick, I co-founded the MassDOT open-data program, which launched smartphone applications that tell you when your bus or train is going to arrive, saving taxpayers and farepayers millions compared with more costly and cumbersome alternatives. We made the MBTA the very first transit agency on the entire East Coast to make those apps available to riders and received national attention in the Wall Street Journal and on NPR by making the MBTA a leader on real-time information. Other transit agencies on the East Coast followed our lead, and other agencies in Massachusetts state government did as well.
I know the power of open data and I know that it makes government stronger and more responsive, not weaker and more vulnerable. We must instill a culture of transparency and openness in Massachusetts state government, and I am the only candidate in this race with a demonstrated track record of getting that done, not just calling for change.
Data users cannot do their jobs when data are poorly documented, inconsistently recorded, or spread across disparate incompatible data sources. Broadly, audits, evaluations, and functional everyday service rely on connected, documented, accessible, and secure databases. Unfortunately, across governments worldwide, data are not always able to guarantee they are all of the above.
Improvements and modernization in data collection and storage across the Commonwealth would not only result in improved quality and utility of audits from my office, but also enable state agencies to improve their own service delivery. In publishing open and transparent data, our State agencies will support the needs of the research community, advocacy groups, and residents in Massachusetts who deserve access to information.
Again, the questionnaires and question-and-answer session are worth checking out in full if you want to learn more about the candidates for state office for this year’s election.
The primaries will be held on September 6, and the general election will be held on November 8. Go register to vote if you haven’t done so already.
A Well-Deserved Award
Last Monday, the New England First Amendment Coalition announced that it will honor the Worcester Telegram & Gazette with the 2022 Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award for the newspaper’s successful three-year legal battle for police-misconduct records.
According to NEFAC:
The FOI Award is given each year to a New England journalist or team of journalists for a body of work from the previous calendar year that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law.
Preference is given to those who overcome significant official resistance.
Brad Petrishen, an investigative reporter who covers police and courts, is the journalist whose work led to the lawsuit.
In 2018, Petrishen requested police internal-affairs records from the city of Worcester. Officials refused to provide the documents despite two previous lawsuits by the T&G about the same issue. The T&G soon filed a third lawsuit, and the paper prevailed when a Superior Court judge ruled in its favor in June 2021. In January, the judge further ruled that officials had acted in bad faith and ordered the city to pay the T&G’s legal fees and punitive damages. It was the first time a judge awarded punitive damages under a provision in the 2016 public records law.
I previously wrote at length about the lawsuit — you can read my story here. I also spoke about the lawsuit with Bill Shaner on his Worcester’s Good But Hurts podcast.
T&G photojournalist Christine Peterson shared a picture of Petrishen showing off the well-deserved award:
The T&G will officially receive the award at NEFAC’s 12th annual New England First Amendment Awards ceremony on April 13.
The FOI Award is not the first time Petrishen was recognized for his work on the lawsuit. In April 2020, he was presented with the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s Right-to-Know Award. And in October 2021, NENPA gave him its Publick Occurrences Award, which is named after the first American newspaper from the Colonial Era.
I just recently realized that Substack makes it incredibly easy to embed tweets. (Don’t make fun of me — I’m still getting the hang of it.) I’m going to take advantage of this feature to share great (mostly non-paywalled) local journalism in each newsletter from now on. The stories won’t necessarily be related to public records, but they will all be things that interest the sorts of people who enjoy this newsletter.
I try to get this newsletter out Monday morning, but sometimes life gets in the way. This week, I’m publishing it Monday afternoon, which isn’t too bad — although I’m a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to finish everything that I wanted to include. Last week, my cell phone was on the fritz and I had to get a new one. I also had problems with my voice-recognition software, which is crucial to me getting anything done. And to top it all off, my arms have been on fire for the past week.
I have a chronic-pain problem associated with my hands. Most of the pain is actually in my wrists, and when it gets particularly bad it travels up my forearms to the insides of my elbows. I have pain all the time, but doing tasks with my hands makes it worse, especially typing or using a mouse. As you might imagine, it’s not exactly an ideal problem for a writer to have. I use voice-recognition software, but it’s not a perfect solution so I still end up using my hands for many things.
I won’t lie — being in pain all the time sucks ass! I don’t despair over it (at least not anymore), but it’s still pretty frustrating when I can’t accomplish the things that I want to accomplish.
This week, I was hoping to have another update on my Brady list project (which I have previously written about here and here), but I’m going to have to save that for next week. I was also planning on announcing that I had made my 50th records request of the year, but that’s also going to have to wait. According to the spreadsheet I use to track my requests, I’ve made a mere 48 so far.
I always feel like I should be doing more work. During August through October 2020, I made over 250 records requests and filed over 150 appeals. Maybe I got a little carried away, but the primary reason I wasn’t able to keep up with that work was my chronic pain. I know it isn’t realistic, but I wish I was always getting that much done.
If I could afford it, I would hire an assistant to take care of all my grunt work. But that’s not going to happen any time soon — unless there’s someone out there who wants to give me a grant or put me in touch with their rich uncle who cares deeply about government transparency. Any takers?
In any case, thanks for indulging me and reading my rant. You are still reading, right?
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If you don’t have a rich uncle you can hook me up with, please do the next best thing and become a paid subscriber to this newsletter so that I can keep dedicating my time to this work. I’m not a fan of paywalls, so you don’t need to pay to get access — but your support is what will allow me to keep you updated on all the latest local public records developments.
Also, I’m always looking for new things to write about it. If you have an interesting — or perhaps frustrating — story about trying to obtain public records, tell me about it. You can email me at aquemere0[at]gmail[dotcom] or send me a direct message on Twitter.
That’s all for now.
CORRECTION (4/10/2022): Updated this piece to clarify that Brad Petrishen won two prior awards for his work on the T&G public records lawsuit, not one.