Boston sees spike in requests for recordings — and complaints about responses

Requests for records and subsequent complaints about them continue to pour into Boston in recent years, as the city’s public record hunters in 2021 logged more than 230 appeals to the state.

Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, which is the place to file complaints about responses – or lack of response – to public records requests to government agencies, sent 233 last year that concerned the city of Boston.

Although the city’s public records office remains slow to respond to inquiries from the media and members of the public, these issues largely predate Mayor Michelle Wu, who took office in November. Wu’s press office said the city “seeks to respond to all inquiries, including appeals to the state”, and says the number of complaints is dwarfed by a massive increase in the number of requests, especially over the past two years.

“As part of the city’s ongoing commitment to transparency, additional staff have been hired to help handle 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 claims appealed has declined every year since 2017.”

According to what the city said is not a full account, claims rose from 798 in 2017 to 1,171 the following year, soared to 1,889 before soaring first to 3,325 in 2020. , then to 5,191 last year. At the same time, calls – which were just 24 in 2014, the first year for which state data was readily available, rose from 110 in 2017 to 149, 180, 176 and then to 233 last year – including several were from this reporter and others from the Herald.

Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition said the spike in demands is no excuse not to respond.

“That could be a factor, but if the law was followed, there wouldn’t be a lot of appeals in the first place,” said Silverman, who said he’s heard complaints about Boston on that front from from various journalists. Herald.

Matthew Cahill, the head of the Boston Finance Commission watchdog organization, said the city for a number of years has been simply skeptical of saying too much when the press or public ask for something.

“There’s a sensitivity about what information is coming out,” said Cahill, whose organization, created by state law, is tasked with overseeing operations for the city of Boston. “They want to know why you want it. But no matter why, it’s public information.

He offered a kind of solution – give more people the power to answer questions and feel free to just give public information without requiring formal requests.

“If the administration allowed department heads to release certain information, it might take less time,” he said. “Over the past 10 years there has been more effort to demand information requests… It’s strangling the flow of information.”

It is true that Boston is far from the only government agency to see an increase in requests and subsequent complaints. Statewide, people made just 774 calls in 2014, a number that skyrocketed to 2,994 last year.

It was in the midst of a busy 2021 when then-acting mayor Kim Janey announced a plan to bolster a beleaguered public records team, hire positions at the law firm, which runs requests, and for the first time appoint someone to deal exclusively with requests. to the police department, which usually requires a formal request, even for a police report.

Janey’s decision came after a federal judge slammed the city for not handing over some key texts from school board members – the eventual release led to two resignations from that body – and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. slapped the city with a lawsuit over its reluctance to part ways with files on fired police commissioner Dennis White. A few news outlets have also filed lawsuits against the city over the white papers.

The GA has the only real bite in the face of this law. The public records supervisor in Galvin’s office can — and gladly does — send emails or letters to records custodians telling them to stop breaking the law and respond to people’s requests.

But then the only other recourse – unless you have the money to hire a lawyer to file your own complaint and fight a potentially lengthy legal battle – is for the secretary’s office to refer the matter to the GA, as happened with the White instance. It’s rare for the AG to bring such a lawsuit, but, as evidenced last year, it’s not uncommon.

Cam Goggins, who runs the Live Boston 617 blog and appeared on Boston’s state appeals list multiple times last year, said there must be more repercussions if Boston doesn’t take action. requests seriously.

“There are really no consequences,” Goggins said, noting that “simple requests” often take months to fulfill. “Part of it is the lack of structure and the 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 looks for wrongdoing in the city — they usually just try to write something that paints first responders in a good light, like an interesting arrest by the police.

“They think they have the ability to blindly ignore and deny people,” he said of the people setting citywide policies. “You just see this traditionalist mentality.”

“It doesn’t matter if there are 7,000 requests or 20,000 requests,” he continued. “Mayor Wu likes to talk about transparency…Information should be available, no matter what you think of who answers it.”