CommonWealth reports that the Secretary of State's office has ordered more training on the public records law for Department of Public Health employees after they repeatedly refused to comply with public records requests:
Secretary of State William Galvin is ordering officials at the Department of Public Health to attend training sessions on the workings of the Massachusetts Public Records Law.
“In the past 12 months my office has opened no less than 14 appeals based on the response or nonresponse of DPH to requests for public records,” wrote Shawn Williams, Galvin’s supervisor of public records, in an Oct. 16 letter to David Kibbe, the communications director at DPH. “In several instances, DPH failed to provide any response whatsoever to a request for records. In some . . . DPH provided an acknowledgment, with no other response.”
Calling the situation “unacceptable,” Williams admonished Kibbe for “the apparent inability of [his] office to properly respond to requests for public records in a timely manner.”
Alec Loftus, a spokesman for Health and Human Services, the parent agency of DPH, said employees already receive regular public records training from the department’s legal counsel but would be happy to have additional training.
Loftus said agency officials are very busy, handling Ebola preparedness, the opioid addiction epidemic, and nearly 100 other programs. He said the agency deals with a “high volume” of public records requests.
While I'm glad to hear this is happening, I'd love to see more action against government agencies that ignore records requests. Ask anyone who makes public records on a regular basis and they will tell you that there are lots of government agencies that routinely ignore public records requests or make people jump through hoops to get responses.
Instead of just ordering extra training for government employees that repeatedly refuse to comply with records requests, the Secretary of State should start trying to have criminal charges brought against them. The secretary's office can refer cases to the attorney general's office, but has refused to do so for several years. According to a recent story by The Boston Globe:
[D]ecisions are made by Shawn A. Williams, the lawyer ]Secretary of State William Galvin] appointed to serve as supervisor of records.
“He makes his decisions as he makes them,” Galvin said.
But Galvin is in charge. And he agreed with the decision to stop asking the attorney general’s office to enforce orders to release documents four years ago, even though his office receives more than 600 such complaints a year...
Galvin said the agency stopped referring orders to the attorney general because Martha Coakley’s administration indicated they were not a top priority. In addition, the attorney general’s office has refused to enforce some orders in the past because it disagreed with the secretary of state’s legal reasoning.
“It doesn’t lead to a result that resolves cases,” Galvin lamented. “If anything, it delays cases.”
A spokesman for Coakley’s office insisted that enforcing the public records law was a high priority.
“We take our responsibility as chief law enforcement officer for the Commonwealth seriously, and any comment to the contrary is false,” said Christopher Loh.
Galvin was recently re-elected, so it's unlikely any of the personnel at the Secretary of State's office who handle records requests will change anytime soon, but Martha Coakley is set to be replaced as attorney general by Maura Healey. Perhaps when Healey takes office, the Secretary of State's office will resume referring cases to the attorney general's office.
We can only hope. The public records law is supposed to make government transparent by guaranteeing the public access to government documents in a speedy manner. It's completely undermined when government employees face no repercussions for violating it.