Tag Archives: Charlie Baker

Is this any way to run a railroad?

I’ve tried to be optimistic about Gov. Charlie Baker’s management of the MBTA. But there are some ominous signs that he’s less interested in creating a world-class public transportation system than he is in reducing costs for his non-T-riding supporters. Three examples:

    • As Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung notes, officials are getting ready to pull the plug on late-night service, which she calls “expensive, impractical, and yet aspiring and completely necessary.” (She compares them to Manolo Blahniks, which Google tells me are shoes.)
    • The MBTA has decided to cancel art works that were going to be installed along the Green Line Extension, a project that may cost $1 billion more than first thought. It’s a short-sighted move that indicates we don’t care about our public spaces.
    • The new commuter-rail schedule announced by Keolis includes significant cuts in service. A number of legislators have written to the T and Keolis to express their concerns. I had thought the reworked schedule was aimed at coming up with a rational timetable that Keolis could actually meet — not at drastically reducing the number of trains.

People are moving to the city and the inner suburbs because transportation from farther away — roads and highways as well as trains and buses — has fallen apart. Baker’s agenda raises the specter that it’s going to become harder and harder to get around in urban neighborhoods as well.

Public-records reform: Start with weak tea; add water

Judging from the tone of coverage, it’s hard to tell whether the Massachusetts House’s unanimous approval of public-records reform legislation Wednesday was a step forward or a setback. But it sounds like the already-watery bill under consideration has been diluted still further.

Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and a staunch advocate of reform, is everywhere, telling Andy Metzger of the State House News Service that the bill is “a mixed bag”; lamenting in an article by Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, “My concern is that the bill had just introduced an awful lot of ambiguities”; and describing the legislation as “one step forward and one step back” in an article by Shira Schoenberg of MassLive.com.

The problem is that even though Massachusetts’ public-records law is among the worst in the country (the Center for Public Integrity recently gave the state an “F” for public access to information), the bill passed by the House both giveth and taketh away. Here’s Wallack:

The legislation includes a measure designed to reduce the fees for copies. It orders government agencies to publicly designate someone to handle public records requests, and it gives citizens the opportunity to potentially recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records….

But the bill also gives agencies significantly more time to respond to requests, allows them to outsource some requests to vendors, and did not go as far as some advocates had hoped to rein in labor charges and penalize officials who flout the law.

The bill also continues to exempt the governor’s office, the judiciary and the Legislature itself from the provisions of the law. A commission is going to study that — although, needless to say, it would be a major surprise if we ever heard about it again.

The only hope now is that the Senate will strengthen the legislation when it comes up for consideration early next year. The danger is that Gov. Charlie Baker will sign a weak bill into law, officials will pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and meaningful reform will be put off for another generation.

Guest commentary: Reform public-records law now

The following statement was released Monday by the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a network of more than 40 groups committed to reforming the state public records law, today commended Gov. Charlie Baker for issuing guidance to improve state executive agencies’ handling of requests for information, but emphasized that significant changes to the law itself are still needed to achieve broad, enforceable access to public information throughout the Commonwealth.

Responding to widespread criticism that the Massachusetts public records law is among the weakest in the country and routinely flouted by public officials, Baker last Thursday issued a memorandum to cabinet secretaries providing guidance on how to “reduce delays and costs that burden accessibility.” The memo directs agencies to designate a records access officer to help streamline requests, to standardize fees for copying and staff time, and to set expectations for agency response time. The guidance applies only to state executive agencies, not municipalities, independent agencies, or other entities subject to the public records law.

MassFOIA commended the governor’s action but simultaneously called for legislative reform.

“We applaud Gov. Baker for providing leadership and direction to improve access to public information,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “But even the best-intended administrative guidance is inherently limited. It doesn’t have the force of law and it won’t have any impact on access at the municipal level.”

“The governor deserves credit for taking this step,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, “but we also need legislation to fix the law itself and ensure real accountability. Otherwise, Massachusetts will keep getting failing grades and officials will continue to treat freedom of information as a suggestion instead of a public right.”

Several of the provisions outlined in Baker’s memo may increase timely and affordable access, but they set no firm deadlines for complying with requests or overall limits on the amount of money that agencies can charge to provide information the public has a right to obtain.

“Even under this guidance, agencies can — and in all probability will — continue to charge a fortune for requests that they perceive as complex,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Time and again we’ve seen Massachusetts agencies demand huge fees when other states turn over the same information for a fraction of the cost. While this guidance is a step in the right direction, it won’t prevent abuses of the law.”

“One of the most important reforms is attorney’s fees for those wrongly denied public records, and that cannot be established by the governor,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “That takes legislation. We’re pushing for a vote on a strong comprehensive bill in the legislature in September.” Forty-seven other states provide attorney’s fees to hold officials accountable when they refuse to follow the law.

The state public records law grants the public the right to access information about government operations from the executive branch and municipalities, subject to certain exemptions. MassFOIA contends that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.

In July, the legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight gave the nod to a bill supported by MassFOIA, which is now before the House Committee on Ways and Means. Key provisions would update the law to reflect advances in technology, rationalize fees for obtaining public records by having them reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information. It would also help government officials fielding public records requests by allowing them additional time for compliance and the ability to ask for other accommodations in “exceptional circumstances.” Legislative leaders have indicated a desire to vote on public records reform legislation in the fall.

The proposed legislation aims to improve access to information the law already defines as a public record. It would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions, including those for personal privacy, criminal investigations, personnel records and trade secrets. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Promote access to records in electronic form.
  • Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
  • Lower costs for requesters and limit charges for redacting documents to withhold information.
  • Require attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied, creating an incentive for agencies to obey the law.
  • Extend the time for compliance from 10 to 15 days.
  • Allow record-keepers to obtain more time or the ability to charge special fees when responding to frequent or unusually large requests.


Why the Olympics defeat is the Market Basket saga of 2015


Market Basket protesters in 2014

The defeat of the Boston Olympics bid was this summer’s Market Basket story — a feel-good saga about ordinary people triumphing over the moneyed interests. Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi calls the opponents “heroes.”

Of course, there were a lot of good people involved in Boston 2024, and they don’t deserve to be cast as the bad guys. But it was a great moment on Monday when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh stepped to the podium to say that he wasn’t willing to put taxpayers at risk, thus bringing this contentious chapter to a close.

Some of us opposed to the Olympics began cautiously celebrating on July 17, when The Boston Globe ran a story by its veteran Olympics reporter, John Powers, that made it sound like Walsh, Gov. Charlie Baker and the U.S. Olympic Committee were all trying to send a signal that it was over. In particular, Powers noted that the political establishment is always a driving force behind successful Olympic bids, and that was entirely lacking with Boston 2024.

There’s already plenty of discussion about what went wrong with the proposal. Personally, I don’t think anything went wrong. We didn’t want the Olympics, and nobody asked us. A better job of salesmanship wasn’t going to matter. As Michael Jonas writes in CommonWealth Magazine:

Far from being small-minded killjoys, Bostonians proved to be a pretty forward-looking, sophisticated lot. We asked a lot of questions, didn’t settle for half-baked answers, and weren’t overly wowed by the shiny objects the US Olympic Committee dangled in front of us.

As for the public improvements we will supposedly lose now that the Olympics won’t be disrupting our lives for the next nine years, there isn’t a single unmet need — be it transportation improvements, affordable housing or the redevelopment of blighted areas — that can’t be met better without the games. Former WCVB-TV (Channel 5) editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron writes:

If Boston 2024 boosters are really serious about a long-term vision and strategy for greater Boston, why not join forces with Mayor Walsh in his nascent Boston 2030 planning? If this wasn’t just marketing palaver, they could put their resources (including their unspent budget) and talent together with others in the city (including the No Boston Olympic supporters) to develop and implement a smart and integrated plan to upgrade housing, roads and bridges, public transit, education, creating jobs and more so that greater Boston can express its aspirations in a practical and achievable blueprint that can transform the city and meet the needs of all its people. That would be a gold-medal-winning performance.

Kudos to everyone on a tremendous victory.

More: The Market Basket analogy occurred to Jon Keller of WBZ as well.

Photo (cc) by Val D’Aquila and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Remembering the nine victims of the Charleston shootings

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Look at this image of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church‘s home page. Nothing has changed since the horrifying murders of nine people Wednesday evening. The site also includes this quote from Sister Jean German Ortiz, who, I assume, is or was a member of the church: “Jesus died a passionate death for us,  so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

They died passionately for our sins — we, the inheritors and conservators of a Confederate-flag-waving, gun-drenched culture that has only partly come to terms with our legacy of slavery and racism. The Washington Post has sketches of each of the nineSharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson. Sadly, with the possible exception of Rev. Pinckney, we’ll have an easier time remembering the name of the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof. There’s only one of him, and in any case evil holds our attention more easily than good.

I’m not sure why this terrible crime would spark any disagreements other than the inevitable disagreement over guns. But for some reason people are debating whether this is a “hate crime” or an act of “terrorism.” It strikes me that it’s obviously both — a home-grown act of terror committed by someone filled with hate.

But enough bloviating. Here is a short list of articles I’ve read that I hope will broaden our understanding.

I begin with our finest essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who has written an eloquent demand that South Carolina remove the Confederate flag immediately. He writes:

This moral truth [a reference to a speech by a Confederate politician] — “that the negro is not equal to the white man” — is exactly what animated Dylann Roof. More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded — with human sacrifice.

Too bad Gov. Charlie Baker’s initial reaction to a question about the Stars and Bars was so clueless. Dan Wasserman of The Boston Globe does a whole lot better.

The New York Times publishes a piece by Douglas R. Egerton, the biographer of Emanuel AME founder Denmark Vesey, on the history of the church — a history marred by numerous racist attacks, the most recent coming in 1963. Here’s Egerton:

For 198 years, angry whites have attacked Emanuel A.M.E. and its congregation, and when its leaders have fused faith with political activism, white vigilantes have used terror to silence its ministers and mute its message of progress and hope.

Egerton also links to a 2014 Times article on the unveiling of a statue of Vesey, who, along with 34 others, was executed following a failed slave rebellion. Incredibly, there were those who opposed the statue on the grounds that Vesey was a “terrorist.” Think about that if you hear anyone deny that Roof carried out an act of terrorism.

I’ll close with my friend Charlie Pierce, who posted a commentary at Esquire on Thursday that demonstrated tough, clear-eyed thinking at a moment when the rest of us were still trying to figure out what had just happened. Pierce writes:

What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.

Please keep the nine victims and their families in your thoughts today.

Drive a stake through the corrupt heart of casino gambling

8161314100_89f6987d5a_oLongtime readers know that I don’t disclose who I’m voting for. Yes, I’m a liberal, and if you tried to guess I’m sure you’d be right most of the time. But I firmly believe that journalists — even opinion journalists — should keep their choices to themselves. It’s not a matter of objectivity; it’s a matter of independence.

But I feel no such compunction about ballot questions. After all, I analyze and express my opinion about issues. It seems silly to refuse to say how I’m going to vote on Question 3 after writing repeatedly that I’m staunchly opposed to casino gambling.

Tomorrow is Election Day. Here’s how I’m going to be voting on the four statewide ballot questions.

And yes, I will start with Question 3, which I think is by far the most important matter on the ballot. I have been fighting against casino gambling since 2007, when the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe tried to build a casino in Middleborough, the town where I grew up. The bid eventually fell apart amid a miasma of anger and corruption (what a surprise, eh?).

But Gov. Deval Patrick and the state legislature, to their everlasting discredit, kept the issue alive with a 2011 law allowing for the opening of three casinos and one slots parlor. It is an outrage. A “yes” vote on Question 3, which you can be sure I’ll be casting tomorrow, would once again outlaw casino gambling in Massachusetts.

Casino gambling has been tied to an ocean full of social and economic ills — increased rates of crime, divorce, even suicide, and hollowed-own business districts as the spending shifts to the local casino. The stench of corruption is inevitable. Look at Everett, the locus of federal indictments even before one shovelful of dirt has been turned over.

I am disappointed that both major-party gubernatorial candidates, Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley, say they would be open to finding a way to build a casino in Springfield even if Question 3 is approved. One aspect they may not understand is this: If casino gambling is legal, then tribal casinos become inevitable. You can’t let Springfield have a casino without opening the door to one, two or more tribal casinos as well. (And never mind the condescending attitude Baker and Coakley have about Springfield’s economic prospects.)

My fear is that Question 3 will lose decisively, thus creating the impression that Massachusetts residents are pro-casino. Polls consistently show that people are in favor of casinos in the abstract and against them when someone proposes to build one in their neighborhood. If Question 3 does go down, we can still fight them one at a time. But a “yes” vote would put the matter to rest once and for all.

Question 1. I’m voting “no.” A “yes” vote would repeal a law that indexes the gasoline tax to the rate of inflation. Our gas taxes are still on the low side, as anyone who drives through Connecticut can attest. Our transportation system needs a huge amount of investment whether you’re talking about rail, subways or highways and bridges.

Question 2. A “yes” vote would expand the bottle-deposit law, and I’m all for it.

Question 4. This is a perfect example of why some issues should not be decided by referendum. Passage of Question 4 would make medical leave mandatory at most private companies in Massachusetts. It’s an enormously complex issue. I’m voting “yes” because I’m concerned about the message that it would send if it goes down to defeat.

Looking at the Globe’s previous Republican endorsements

Despite The Boston Globe’s reputation as a Democratic paper, its editorial pages have endorsed Republican candidates for governor more often than you might think. Still, today’s editorial endorsing Charlie Baker over Martha Coakley is notable because it is only the second time in recent history that the paper has gone with a Republican over a more liberal Democrat.

Let’s look at the history of Republicans the Globe has endorsed starting in 1970.

  • 1970: The Globe did not endorse in the race between Gov. Frank Sargent, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent, Boston Mayor Kevin White. Winner: Sargent.
  • 1974: Sargent got the nod over a former state representative named Michael Dukakis. Sargent may have been the state’s most liberal governor until Deval Patrick; Dukakis campaigned as that year’s no-new-taxes candidate. Winner: Dukakis, who turned around and imposed a huge tax increase to cover the deficit left behind by the free-spending Sargent.
  • 1978: Dukakis lost the Democratic primary to a conservative, Ed King, whom he had removed as head of Massport. The Globe endorsed Republican Frank Hatch, a moderate who was the minority leader in the Massachusetts House. Winner: King.
  • 1990: The Globe endorsed moderate Republican Bill Weld, a former U.S. attorney, over conservative Democrat John Silber, the president of Boston University. Winner: Weld.
  • 1994: For the only time until now, the Globe chose the more conservative candidate — Weld, a moderate running for re-election, over then-state representative Mark Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat. Winner: Weld.
  • 2014: The Globe endorses Republican Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican, over state Attorney General Martha Coakley, a liberal. Winner: TBD.