The records requests and subsequent complaints about them alike keep flowing into Boston in recent years, as city public records hunters in 2021 registered more than 230 appeals with the state.
Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, which is the place to bring any complaints about the responses — or lack thereof — to public records requests to government agencies, fielded 233 last year that had to do with the city of Boston.
Though the city’s public records office remains slow to respond to requests from media and members of the public alike, these issues largely predate Mayor Michelle Wu, who came into power in November. Wu’s press office said the city “seeks to be responsive to all requests, including appeals to the state,” and contends the number of complaints is dwarfed by a massive spike in the number of requests, particularly in the past couple of years.
“As part of the City’s continued commitment to transparency, additional staff has been hired to help process the increase in requests,” the city’s press office said in a statement. “While the total number of appeals to the state has increased, the percentage of requests appealed has decreased annually since 2017.”
According to what the city said was not a full accounting, requests rose from 798 in 2017, to 1,171 the next year, climbed to 1,889 before skyrocketing first to 3,325 in 2020 and then 5,191 last year. In parallel, the appeals — which were only at 24 in 2014, the first year for which state data was readily available, have gone from 110 in 2017 up to 149, 180, 176 and then to 233 last year — several of which were from this reporter and others at the Herald.
Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition said the uptick in requests is no excuse for not responding to them.
“That could be a factor, but if the law was being followed, there wouldn’t be very many appeals in the first place,” said Silverman, who said he’d heard complaints about Boston on this front from various reporters, told the Herald.
Matthew Cahill, the head of the Boston Finance Commission watchdog organization, said the city for a number of years is just simply skeptical of putting out too much when either the press or the public ask for something.
“There’s a sensitivity as to the information getting out,” said Cahill, whose organization, created by state statute, is tasked with overseeing city of Boston operations. “They want to know why you want it. But it doesn’t matter why – it’s public information.”
He offered up something of a fix — give more people the power to answer questions, and feel free to just give out public information without requiring formal requests.
“If the administration would empower department heads to disseminate certain information, then that might take less time,” he said. “Over the last 10 years there’s more of a push toward requiring requests for information … It does strangle the information flow.”
It is true that Boston’s far from the only governmental agency seeing an uptick in requests, and subsequent complaints. Statewide, people only made 774 appeals in 2014 — a number that has soared steadily to 2,994 last year.
It was in the middle of busy 2021 when then-Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced a plan to beef up a beleaguered public records team, hiring positions in the law office, which handles requests, and for the first time designating someone to deal exclusively with requests to the police department, which typically requires a formal request for even a police report.
Janey’s move came after a federal judge blasted the city for not turning over some key texts from School Committee members — the eventual release led to two resignations on that body — and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office slapped the city with a lawsuit over its reluctance to part with files about fired Police Commissioner Dennis White. A couple of news organizations also leveled lawsuits against the city over the White documents.
The AG is fitted with the only real teeth regarding this law. The public records supervisor in Galvin’s office can — and readily does — send emails or letters to records custodians telling them to stop breaking the law and answer people’s requests.
But then the only further recourse — unless you have the cash to hire a lawyer to file your own suit and fight through a potentially lengthy court battle — is for the secretary’s office to refer the case to the AG, as happened with the White instance. It’s uncommon for the AG to actually file such a suit, but, as evidenced by last year, it isn’t unheard of.
Cam Goggins, who runs the Live Boston 617 blog and pops up several times on the list of appeals to the state over Boston requests last year, said there need to be more repercussions for Boston not taking requests seriously.
“There really is no consequence,” Goggins said, noting “simple requests” often take months to get fulfilled. “Part of it is the lack of structure and lack of infrastructure around the requests, because it’s just not a priority for them.”
Goggins noted that his nonprofit outlet isn’t an investigative unit that’s seeking out city wrongdoing — they’re usually just trying to write something that portrays first responders in a good light, like an interesting arrest by police.
“They think they have the ability to ignore and to blindly deny people,” he said of the people setting citywide policies. “You just see that traditionalist mentality.”
“It doesn’t matter if there’s 7,000 requests or 20,000 requests,” he continued. “Mayor Wu loves to talk about transparency … The information should be available no matter what you think about who’s responding to it.”