Request for ‘Clean Sweep’ Records drags on

Spare Change News reporter Andrew Quemere is trying to get a closer look at “operation clean sweep” through a public records request, but the city has been less than forthcoming so far.

The city of Boston is unlawfully dragging its feet in providing records related to the so-called Operation Clean Sweep—a series of police raids beginning in August that targeted homeless people and drug users who congregate in a section of Boston’s South End known colloquially as “Methadone Mile” for its cluster of addiction-treatment services. The raids have prompted an outcry from activists, particularly after Aug. 6, when police and city workers destroyed three wheelchairs for no apparent reason.

Back in August, I sent a public records request to the city seeking “all documents related to the planning and coordination of ‘Operation Clean Sweep.’” However, according to lawyer Shawn Williams, Boston’s director of public records, the city will not turn over the records within 15 business days, as required by state law.

I filed an appeal with the Massachusetts supervisor of public records—an appointee of the Secretary of the Commonwealth who serves as the state government’s public records watchdog—in the hope that she will force Boston to turn over the records sooner.

Although it’s not yet clear what documents the city will provide, Spare Change News will publish them when they become available in order to bring more transparency to the troubling police activity.

The Massachusetts public records law generally requires government agencies to turn over records within 15 business days; in the event that this proves impossible, an agency can take up to 25 business days to provide records. However, to do this lawfully, an agency must—within 10 business days—provide a written explanation for the delay and a timeframe for when the records will be turned over.

I sent my request via email on Aug. 20. Williams did not provide a response until last Wednesday (Sept. 4), which is 10 business days after I submitted my request. Williams did not say when he would turn over the records, only that he would “provide a written follow up to this letter in ten (10) business days.”

According to the law, in order to legally delay the production of public records, a records access officer must “identify any public records, categories of records, or portions of records that the agency or municipality intends to produce, and provide a detailed statement describing why the magnitude or difficulty of the request unduly burdens the other responsibilities of the agency or municipality and therefore requires additional time to produce the public records sought.”

In his response, Williams made no attempt to identify any of the records he would turn over or provide a reason for the delay. All he said was, “The [Police] Department needs additional time to review your request and provide any responsive records.”

In a Sept. 5 follow-up email, which Williams sent after I filed my appeal, he again failed to note what records he intended to provide or give a specific justification for the delay, only saying: “My intention is to provide a complete response to you within ten business days. The reason for the delay is my intent to ensure that my response is complete once provided and I must coordinate with the [Police Department] to meet that goal.”

In addition to requiring agencies to identify the records they intend to provide and justify delays, the law also requires agencies t o explain what records they intend to redact or withhold, provide specific reasons for why they intend to redact or withhold these records, and explain how much money they intend to charge for the records and why.

Williams’ response did not include any of this information.

Due to Williams’ failure to include all the necessary information in his response, the supervisor of public records will likely prohibit Boston from charging fees for providing these records. According to the law, a government agency “shall not charge a fee for a public record unless the records access officer responded to the requester within 10 business days [in accordance with the law].”

Prior to working for Boston, Williams served for five years as the Massachusetts supervisor of public records.

Williams—along with his then-boss, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin—was lambasted in the media for serving as more of a gatekeeper than a watchdog. Williams took months to rule on appeals and frequently sided with government agencies that sought to keep records secret or charge exorbitant fees.

The nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. annually awards a satirical award called the Golden Padlock to government officials or agencies that it deems the most secretive in the country. In 2016, Williams and Galvin were nominated—although they ultimately “lost” to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

At the end of 2016, Williams abruptly resigned from his job as supervisor of public records to work for the City of Boston. His resignation took place days before an update to the public records law took effect.

The updated law, among other things, requires the supervisor to rule on appeals much faster than Williams did. Secretary Galvin appointed Rebecca Murray, a lawyer with his Elections Division, to serve as the current supervisor of public records.

After Williams was hired by the City of Boston, the Boston Globe reported that he had failed to recuse himself from decisions regarding Boston records even after he accepted the job with the city.

Upon hiring Williams, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh—who has a history of destroying public records—praised the lawyer via a press release: “Shawn has written the book on public records law, and I’m thrilled he will be joining City Hall to ensure openness, transparency and compliance around all public records matters.”

“Public records statutes are key to creating an open, transparent, thriving democracy … I look forward to ensuring Boston is the leader in public records good practices,” Williams added.

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