Public Records Law Reforms Still Haven't Made Massachusetts Any Less Of A Hellhole For Records Requesters

from the appears-the-massholishness-goes-all-the-way-to-the-top dept

Nearly a third of the official guide to public records requests published by the state of Massachusetts is given over to exemptions. That should give records requesters some idea of what they’re in for when tangling with the state’s agencies.

The state has developed a reputation for being a public records black hole that sucks in requests but never spits anything back out. MuckRock has a detailed post about one agency — the Medford Police Department — that appears, for the most part, to simply ignore requests it doesn’t feel like fulfilling.

MuckRock records show that the agency consistently fails to acknowledge and fulfill requests, sometimes for years and despite appeals to the Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records. Its failure to comply with even the updated legislation highlights the shortcomings that remain in enforcement mechanisms for citizens entitled to government information.

This means the nonprofit is burning up man hours attempting to communicate with the MPD’s brick wall.

The oldest pending request, dating back to April 2013, had 112 email follow-ups that were sent to an officer who, at some point since initial submission, had left the department; these were followed by 14 fax follow-up messages to a currently valid office fax number.

If there’s an exemption that can be used, it will be used. Up until recently, the state had the worst public records laws in the nation. And it looks like they’re still the worst. This has allowed a state agency to claim a 63-year-old murder case investigation was still ongoing, despite the lead suspect having died years ago. In another case, the State Police took $180 from a requester and then refused to hand over the records requested.

The recently instituted public records law reforms don’t seem to be having much of an effect on state agency responsiveness. MuckRock is reporting law enforcement agencies continue to be the main offenders, upholding the proud police tradition of ignoring laws officers and officials don’t like.

This leads to insane, if not illegal, responses to records requests. Todd Wallack of the Boston Globe requested a photo of an officer and detective employed by the Boston Police Department. It rejected his request citing public records exemption f, which claimed the staff photos were “investigatory materials.” When Wallack challenged this determination, the BPD responded with ¯_(?)_/¯.

BPD couldn’t explain exactly how this exemption applied to the records in question. And so, the Supervisor of Public Records ordered the Department to fulfill the request. But with a lack of enforcement options from the SPR, it is still to be determined if the Department will comply or not.

The Supervisor of Public Records is an especially useless position, but one that meshes well with the state government’s antagonistic take on transparency. The SPR makes the initial call on disputed records requests, but cannot, as a matter of law, force an agency to turn over records if the SPR determines the government agency is in the wrong. All the SPR can do is kick it up to the Attorney General for another determination. This escalation is completely at the discretion of the SPR, who is required by law to escalate reports of non-compliance by state agencies.

In essence, state and local agencies are being told “wait til your dad gets home” when they lose appeals, but without any estimate on when dad will be home or if he’s even interested in handling these issues whenever the hell he actually gets back.

Here’s how the state suggests requesters deal with Massachusett’s effed-up public records laws. This comes directly from Secretary of State spokesperson Debra O’Malley.

“Sometimes requesters opt to sue because they might be more successful and it’s faster,” said O’Malley.

I’m sure O’Malley means well and is probably accurately portraying the near-farcical situation. But the government shouldn’t be pushing citizens into lawsuits over public records. The presumption is supposed to be openness, not schoolyard taunts of “make me.” But that’s where the state remains, even after public records reform: a drain on taxpayers both ways, whether screwing them out of records or paying legal fees with taxpayer funds at the end of the apparently inevitable lawsuits.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Public Records Law Reforms Still Haven't Made Massachusetts Any Less Of A Hellhole For Records Requesters”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

States need to protect themselves

They really need to pass some state laws with teeth to force the agencies to respond with documents as required by law. I personally would like to see a 3rd party have unlimited access to the state records in the event that they are deemed willfully noncompliant. Maybe knowing what those 3rd parties will see will get them to do their jobs.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: States need to protect themselves

Technically, such laws already exist. But the government has almost zero interest in enforcing them.

A freedom of information law is a statutory right.

But the agency that is in charge of investigating and prosecuting violations of those laws is the FBI, who are perpetually understaffed. And they feel they need to justify what budget they get, so they devote their limited resources to the flashy crimes, not the ones that are actually harming people.

The result is that the FBI will spend tens of thousands of man-hours on putting mentally retarded people in prison for terror plots that would never have existed without the FBI driving them forward, and then has no man-hours to devote to enforcing other laws. And since no other agency has authority in this particular area of the law…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: States need to protect themselves

“But the government has almost zero interest in enforcing them.”

Selective enforcement of the law is something that has been there for ever but lately seems to be getting worse. Rule of law is a joke when the DA AG refuse to do their damned jobs.

I can understand not enforcing laws that are no longer or never were applicable and should be removed, but there have been many high level transgressions that were not even investigated … apparently because it would cost too much – this is not even funny. We go after poor people like flies on shit because they are less able to defend themselves all the while letting the wealthy off with a slap on the wrist if anything – this is what they call law ‘n order.

That One Guy (profile) says:

'You made it a fight, you pay the bills.'

If the agencies stonewalling had to pay the bill for the resulting legal fight, with the amount split between the agency’s budget and the head of said agency, I suspect they’d be a lot more willing to hand out requested documents.

As it stands now stonewalling costs them nothing, even when they are forced(eventually) to hand over documents, no matter how blatant and/or absurd the excuses made are, but if they had a very real and personal financial incentive they’d probably be a lot more open(well, after a few ‘examples’ were made anyway).

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The reverse should be true as well.

What’s the penalty for refusing to comply with a subpoena or warrant? Why is refusing to comply with another law that compels presentation of information any different in penalty?

Refusing more than two legitimate requests for bullshit reasons should make the relevant government agency the target of an organized crime investigation.

theszak says:

Hidden Data of Boston City Council

Looking for the Data compiled and edited in the Council Chamber during the most recent Public Meeting of Boston City Council on the machines in front of the Dais of the President chairing the Public Meeting. The File compiled, edited, and added to is used to interpret another file, the file name ending with the file extension .sgstn

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...