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By Colman M. Herman
The Promise in 2014: “Charlie [Baker] has already proposed serious initiatives to make state government more transparent and will reexamine the practices regarding public records requests when elected.”
That’s what Tim Buckley, Baker’s campaign manager back then, told me at the time.
The Reality in 2019: My recent experiences in seeking records from Baker reveal that not only does the governor continue to refuse to turn over records that may not put him in the best light, he now even declines to produce records that are quite mundane in nature. This despite the earlier promise of Buckley, who is now a senior advisor to Baker.
In a series of public records requests that I made over past months, it didn’t make a shred of difference whether the records I sought were potentially sensitive in nature or not — all the requests were rejected, often summarily, by Baker’s lawyers.
For example, Baker and Lt. Gov. Karen Polito both refused to turn over records of the expenses they had incurred acting in their official capacities for a one-year period. Baker also declined to produce any text messages he had exchanged with his bromance buddy, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for a three-month period.
Then I tried an experiment. In separate requests, I asked Baker’s office for a number of records that were all quite prosaic in nature: documents related to requests for him to appear at events, to provide autographed photos, and to issue proclamations and citations, as well as the resumes of interns working in the governor’s office. The governor’s website makes reference to all these items. Baker’s lawyers denied every one of these requests as well.
Baker, like his predecessors, says his office is not subject to the Massachusetts public records law as a result of a 1997 Supreme Judicial Court ruling — Lambert v. Judicial Nominating Council. The Lambert decision holds that the governor’s office is not explicitly included in the definition of who is covered by the public records law and is therefore not subject to it.
Transparency advocates, however, have argued for years that Lambert was a narrow ruling related just to records in the possession of the Judicial Nominating Council, which recommends judges to the governor for appointment to the bench. But in 2017, Attorney General Maura Healey, who pundits think will likely run for governor in the next election cycle, ruled that the governor is not covered by the public records law.
In all of the above public records requests, Baker’s legal team again and again used its boilerplate denial language: “Any records responsive to your request have been withheld consistent with the public records law as interpreted by the Supreme Judicial Court.”
Baker aides say that irrespective of the Lambert decision, his office voluntarily considers and responds to public records requests on a case-by-case basis. In other words, Baker picks and chooses which documents he wants to release to the public and which ones he wants to keep from ever seeing the light of day.
While Baker’s position on public records is generally consistent with his predecessors — three Republicans and one Democrat — it does differ in one key respect. In denying records, it was not uncommon for the former governors to cite exemptions allowed under the public records law when withholding or redacting documents. Baker’s lawyers rarely, if ever, do that; they just deny the request and don’t bother to explain why.
Mary Connaughton, the director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute in Boston, has a compelling suggestion for Baker.
“If the governor really wants to send a strong message that would improve the public trust, he could issue a bold executive order to extend the public records law to the governor’s office,” she says. “Such an order would be politically difficult for future governors to abandon.”
What say you, Governor?
Colman M. Herman is a freelance writer and reporter living in Boston.
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