BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu took office promising greater transparency in her administration, but one barometer of her performance indicates she still has some work to do.
Aides say the city has received 3,500 public records requests since Wu took office in November. Of that total, 98 were appealed to the secretary of state’s office because the filers were dissatisfied with the city’s responses or lack of a response, according to a review of records posted online. The secretary of state’s office, which adjudicates appeals, sided with the petitioners on 90 of the appeals and with the city eight times.
Nearly half of the appeals the city lost were due to its failure to even respond to the public records requests. In many instances, the city also failed to respond to the secretary of state’s office when it made inquiries as part of the appeal process.
One person, for example, filed a public records request with the city seeking copies of “email correspondence . . . within the mayor’s office discussing relaxing or rescinding of the January 2022 vaccine requirement in Boston.”
When the city failed to respond, the person filed an appeal with the supervisor of public records, Rebecca Murray, in the secretary of state’s office. The supervisor‘s office reached out to the city for an explanation, but got no response. The supervisor then ordered the city to respond to the public records request.
Wu made government transparency a high priority in her run for mayor. On her campaign website, for example, she says: “Each day, I am reminded that the only way to act with the scale and urgency that the moment requires is to make government as accessible and transparent as possible so democracy, community, and advocacy drives everything that we do together.”
A Wu spokeswoman said the mayor did not have time to discuss the issue.
In an email, Shawn Williams, the city official charged by Wu with responding to public records requests, defended the administration’s response, noting that the appeals dealt with about 3 percent of the 3,500 requests the city received during Wu’s tenure as mayor.
It’s unclear whether all those who didn’t file an appeal received the documents they were looking for. It’s possible many of the requesters did not pursue appeals because they didn’t have the time, the knowledge, or the persistence to follow through.
Although Williams invited follow-up questions, he did not respond to subsequent inquiries asking him to explain the city’s nonresponses to public records requests that ended up being appealed.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said he was dismayed by the city’s recent track record.
“There’s no excuse for ignoring public records requests,” he said. “Citizens are entitled to transparency. The law requires it. If the city is unable to manage the volume of requests it receives, then it needs to make changes to how it operates. It needs to find a way to make open government more of a priority.”
According to a review of the appeals filed during Wu’s tenure as mayor, 40 were filed against the Boston Police Department and 15 were filed against the Boston Public Schools. The police department lost all but two of the appeals against it; the school district lost all of them.
Those who filed appeals included residents, journalists, and lawyers. They sought all manner of documents, ranging from settlement agreements to policy documents to police internal affairs reports to emails.
In one appeal directly involving Wu herself, a Boston Globe reporter sought “direct messages” sent or received at two of the mayor’s Twitter addresses: @MayorWu and @wutrain. Williams provided the direct messages for @MayorWu, but refused to produce them for @wutrain because he said it was the mayor’s personal account and not subject to the public records law.
Murray, the supervisor of public records, wasn’t satisfied with the response from Williams. “It is unclear whether the requested records were sent or received in furtherance of city business,” she said in a letter to him. “The city must clarify this matter.”
Even though Williams was ordered to provide the supervisor with his follow-up clarification to the Globe, she did not have a copy in her file and Williams did not respond to a public records request for it or explain what happened.
This reporter submitted two public records requests for reports from the Boston Public Schools related to sexual misconduct, bias, and other matters of equity. The school district refused to produce the reports, claiming doing so would violate the privacy of the individuals involved even in redacted form.
When appeals were filed, Murray decided to review the unredacted records herself and determine whether the information could be redacted in such a manner as to protect the privacy of the parties.
Even though the supervisor is legally empowered to conduct such reviews, the school district did not respond for two months and when it did respond it refused to provide the unredacted reports. As a result, the supervisor turned the cases over to Attorney General Maura Healey last month and asked her to initiate an “enforcement” action against the school district. No action has been taken yet.