You Still Can’t FOIA Gov. Baker’s Office, For Whatever Reason

A quick reminder that the public records law in Massachusetts is still lousy.
Photo via AP

Photo via AP

As per our commonwealth’s threadbare public records law, the Governor’s Office—along with the Legislature and the judiciary branch—are exempt from the prying eyes of public records requests. That, for any number of reasons, is troubling.

In a recent letter, state Supervisor of Records Shawn Williams responded to Globe FOIA rockstar Todd Wallack’s appeal on a request for, among other things, electronic copies of text messages sent or received by Gov. Charlie Baker, which was denied by the Governor’s Office.

The Governor’s Office argued it is “not one of the instrumentalities enumerated” by the Public Records Law, adding “it is the voluntary practice of the Office to consider and respond to public records requests on a case-by-case basis.”

“Whereas the Supreme Judicial Court held that records of the Governor are not subject to mandatory disclosure under the Public Records Law, I will consider this administrative appeal closed,” Williams wrote. And that was that.

The ruling smacks of irony, given Baker’s numerous pledges for more transparency in the executive branch. In response to the MBTA demanding an eye-popping $2,389 from the Herald for records detailing new hires’ connections to electeds and other officials—in the past, provided free of charge by the Probation Department, as well as the state Senate and House of Representatives—Baker spokesman William Pitman doubled down.

“Gov. Baker was pleased to institute new public 
records reform policies for the executive branch to make state government more transparent, and the administration hopes the MBTA will consider…amending the forms to make the ethics information more readily available,” Pitman told the Herald.

After dredging up a traumatic episode in Baker’s otherwise successful high school basketball career, a caller on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio asked the governor why his office denied his public records request for text messages between him and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

“We obey all the laws associated with public requests, public information requests, public records requests and we always will,” Baker said. “We are not required under public records law to submit those as a public record.”

Co-host Jim Braude asked Baker if it troubled him that even if recent reforms succeed, Massachusetts would still be the only state in the U.S. where all three branches are exempt from public records requests.

“Look, we put together a pretty broad set of policy reforms that we could do within the existing statutory framework so that researchers, reporters, and others could access a lot of our data and a lot of our records,” Baker said. “We’re also in the process of installing software that will make it possible for us to do the kind of big data dumps and downloads that folks like Beth Daley [of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting] and others are looking for when they’re doing their big studies and their big stories. And I think that stuff will make a big difference with respect to people’s ability to access a lot of the information they’re looking for.”

When pressed on the exemption that the Governor’s Office enjoys, Baker gave little indication he’ll be relinquishing it any time soon.

 


Kyle Scott Clauss Kyle Clauss, Digital News Writer at Boston Magazine bmagdigital+kclauss@gmail.com