City Hall closes out 200-plus public records requests, citing its own lassitude

Boston City Hall. Photo (cc) 2009 by Marissa Babin.

The state’s weak public-records law, combined with the city of Boston’s lax response to requests for documents, has led to 221 such requests being terminated. Sean Philip Cotter reports in the Boston Herald:

Boston’s records office cited its own inaction in closing 221 public records requests in total, the city now says, going back to March 29, 2021, jumping the total number up significantly from what the office originally offered.

The city is taking the position that because it never responded to previous requests, those seeking them must no longer want them. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told me by email:

Up until Cotter’s reporting, Boston had a policy of automatically closing out public records requests based on its own inaction. Essentially the city was saying in at least 200 cases, because we’ve taken too long to get back to you, we’re going to assume you no longer want the records you requested. That’s one way to shut up people looking for information.

Needless to say, this is not a good look for Mayor Michelle Wu or Shawn Williams, the city’s records access officer. Nor is it especially new. Back in June, Colman Herman reported for CommonWealth Magazine that 98 public records appeals had been filed with the secretary of state’s office “because the filers were dissatisfied with the city’s responses or lack of a response.” The secretary of state sided with the filers on 90 occasions and with the city just eight times. But don’t expect much to happen — the state’s public records law is among the weakest in the country.

According to Cotter’s article in the Herald, Wu has promised to do better, with her press office saying that the city ended its practice of automatically closing out public records requests earlier this summer. “The city has stressed that transparency, which Wu campaigned on, is a top priority,” Cotter wrote.

Wu will mark her first year as mayor next month. It’s time for her to start making good on her promise.