No, good government on Beacon Hill will not lead to bad government

You would think that reforming the opaque workings of the Massachusetts legislature would be something everyone could agree on. In fact, though, you can always find someone to defend the status quo.

Last summer, for example, New England School of Law Professor Lawrence Friedman wrote in The Boston Globe that the legislature should keep its exemption from the state’s public records law even though Massachusetts is only one of just four states with such a secrecy statute.

“It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Now Raymond La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst, has written a commentary for CommonWealth magazine arguing that efforts to make committee votes public are misguided and would lead to more power for the legislative leadership. Such a move would also create incentives for grandstanding by members, La Raja argues, conjuring up the dysfunction in Washington as a warning:

Congress is an obvious example of where “messaging” has become more important to many than legislating. Using Twitter, members can score political points against opponents, shame colleagues, and try to torpedo discussions on policy. Calling out colleagues on committee votes or internal deliberations is especially valuable to extremists who value purity. The model here is the Freedom Caucus, whose members call other Republicans “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) and threaten to enlist primary opponents against them. This kind of behavior erodes goodwill and the ability to forge the kind of compromises that make democracy possible.

CommonWealth contributor Colman M. Herman disagrees, writing that the Massachusetts legislature “is one of the least transparent legislatures in the entire nation.” Herman is right. And the idea that good government will lead to bad government is absurd. If our elected officials need secrecy in order to do the right thing, then we are in mighty bad shape.

A simple step to ease the transition of ex-prisoners returning to society

The lack of an official ID isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d think of when it comes to the challenges facing ex-prisoners returning to society. In fact, though, the lack of an ID can prevent them from starting work or getting an apartment — key steps in moving forward with their lives. As Alexis Farmer writes for CommonWealth Magazine:

Removing the time lag between leaving a correctional facility and restarting one’s life with the necessary documents in hand is critical to a successful transition. During a global pandemic, the urgency to remove bureaucratic hurdles to re-entry is more important.

This past summer and fall I had the privilege of serving as Farmer’s mentor through the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. I serve on the board of advisers at the institute, which places brilliant young graduate students at state and local government agencies for summer internships in the hopes that they’ll consider public service as a career.

Farmer, a master’s student in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, was an intern in Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens (ORC), which supports formerly incarcerated citizens in their transition to the community. Her commentary is a significant contribution to our thinking about criminal justice.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

CommonWealth report shows that the state’s new public records law isn’t working

Following up on my WGBH News column about the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law, I want to call your attention to this excellent article (which predated mine) in CommonWealth Magazine by Colman Herman.

Herman took a look at the (slightly) improved public records law more than three years after it took effect — and what he found demonstrates the need to go back and reform the law root and branch. Among the lowlights:

  • Provisions aimed at toughening the penalties for compliance have been ineffective. Among the most egregious offenders are the State Police and the Boston Police, which, he writes, “take extraordinary measures to withhold documents in their entirety from public view.”
  • A provision that was supposed to make it easier for members of the press and the public to access public records without having to pay high fees has fallen short of that goal. Herman reports that when he asked for copies of disciplinary actions taken against massage therapists over a five-year period, “officials demanded $2,000 before it would turn over any records.”
  • Agencies regularly cite the multiple exemptions built into the law in order to deny access to such obviously public documents as MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak’s contract — which was turned over, Herman writes, but only after a considerable delay.
  • Turning enforcement over to Attorney General Maura Healey has had mixed results, with the attorney general’s office in some cases failing to uphold orders issued by the secretary of state’s office.

“The adages are many — information is the currency of democracy, sunlight is the best disinfectant, democracy depends on an informed citizenry,” Herman writes. “But in Massachusetts, these beliefs often still get shunted aside when it comes to accessing public records even under the new Public Records Law.”

Herman’s article is further evidence that open government in Massachusetts is more myth than reality.

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In 2002, Jill Stein ran for governor. I was there.

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Jill Stein in Arizona earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

To the extent that Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is known at all, it’s mainly for her ambiguous semi-embrace of the anti-vaccine movement, her Harambe tweet (and her subsequent criticism of how the media covered it), and her video confrontation with my WGBH News colleague Adam Reilly at the Democratic National Convention.

But long before Stein began her quadrennial, quixotic campaigns for president, she was a quixotic candidate for governor of Massachusetts. And I was there.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Globe, CommonWealth spar over Brian Joyce’s permits

Brian Joyce
Brian Joyce

It looks like an old-fashioned media war has broken out between the Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine over improvements that outgoing state senator Brian Joyce made to his home in Milton—improvements that the Globe reported may have been made without the proper permits.

Globe reporter Andrea Estes wrote on August 15 that Joyce—a Democrat who’s under investigation by federal authorities on an unrelated matter—may not have had the proper permits when he added more than 2,500 square feet to his home, which is now on the market. She quoted William Bennett, a member of the town’s board of assessors, as saying:

I would be very concerned if any resident did not apply for the proper permits when doing renovations that would have an effect on the value of their property. But it’s even more disheartening if one of our elected officials ignored the town’s laws.

Soon there was pushback, with CommonWealth‘s Jack Sullivan reporting on August 22 that Joyce’s son Michael had posted images of the permits on Facebook. Sullivan, a former Globe and Boston Herald reporter, added that Milton’s chief assessor, Robert Bushway, had concluded that all of the permits were in order.

“I don’t think there’s as much discrepancy as first thought,” Bushway told Sullivan. “After talking to the building inspector, it sounds like they determined all the permits that were needed were pulled. Some of the permits pulled 13 years ago were a little more ambiguous than they are nowadays.”

Three days later, Estes was back with a report that Joyce had issued a statement defending himself and calling her original story “the worst form of irresponsible journalism.” Estes also noted that Joyce had consistently rejected her attempts to interview him. And Bushway was back, too, telling the Globe that Joyce had refused to let him inspect the interior of his home in order to determine the value.

Which brings us to today. Under a headline that flat-out declares “Joyce absolved of wrongdoing,” Sullivan begins:

Sen. Brian Joyce obtained all the required permits to renovate his home, according to a report by the Milton Town Administrator that rebuts questions raised in a newspaper article over whether the lawmaker clandestinely renovated his house without town officials’ knowledge.

“Based upon my review of these files and my consultation with the Building Commissioner, I conclude that the developer who sold the property and/or Senator and Mrs. Joyce obtained the necessary building permits for the work described in those records,” Annemarie Fagan, reading from her report, told the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night.

In the Globe, Travis Andersen and Estes report under the far more ambiguous headline “Milton officials debate whether renovations to Joyce’s home were permitted.” They quote Bennett, the town assessor cited in Estes’s original story, as saying that there is actually no way of knowing whether the work Joyce had done was within the scope of the permits unless an inspection is conducted—which Joyce still hasn’t agreed to. Bennett continues:

There’s no way for us to determine if the work was done under those permits or after those permits—unless we’re allowed in the house to get an understanding of when this work was done. The permits we’ve seen don’t talk about the renovations that are in question—the kitchen, the bathrooms, the finished basement, additional finished rooms in the attic and the office over the garage.

When presented with such divergent accounts, I like to look for undisputed facts. Here are three: 1. The permits were issued more than a dozen years ago, which certainly could contribute to confusion and misunderstanding over what was allowed and what wasn’t. 2. The town administrator has cleared Joyce of any wrongdoing. 3. A town assessor continues to say there’s no way of knowing whether Joyce is in compliance or not unless Joyce allows a home inspection.

To be continued.

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GateHouse officials: Quincy bid was not a conflict of interest

Two of GateHouse Media’s top executives have sent a memo to the company’s publishers and editors—marked “CONFIDENTIAL”—arguing that a bid to provide services to the city of Quincy through its Propel Marketing subsidiary would not have represented a conflict of interest for GateHouse’s Quincy-based daily newspaper, the Patriot Ledger. I obtained a copy of the memo last night.

“There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state,” says the memo from GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis and senior vice president David Arkin. “Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.”

The memo follows a report from Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine that the city rejected the bid in part because Mayor Thomas Koch “was concerned about ethical conflicts if the owner of the city’s major newspaper went to work promoting the image of the municipality.” The GateHouse bid proposal cited the company’s “expertise” at “delivering measurable results for our partners in traditional media, digital media, and digital services as well as having considerable content generation serving The City of Quincy tourism, news, and business.” (Note: I’m quoted in Sullivan’s article.)

If Davis and Arkin are sincere, then they should make sure bid language such as that used in the Quincy bid proposal is not repeated. It would also help if the Patriot Ledger would follow up on its earlier story about the bid by noting that it has since been rejected.

The full text of Davis and Arkin’s memo follows:

DATE: 04/15/16

FROM: Kirk Davis, CEO of GateHouse and David Arkin, Senior Vice President of Content & Product Development

TO: Publishers and Editors

RE: Propel Marketing Campaign

Coming off the heels of this week’s Editors Conference and the release of our News Transparency guidelines, we wanted to be very clear about an issue in New England this week. The city of Quincy, MA, issued a request for proposal to market the redevelopment of the Quincy Center, a retail area. The RFP specified three primary services in its scope:

  1. Amplify Quincy’s story: Develop and implement a marketing campaign that projects Quincy’s image in print, broadcast, digital and social media
  2. Cultivate Positive Media: Leverage and develop relationships that result in positive media about Quincy development opportunities and current hospitality opportunities
  3. Hospitality Business Development: Cultivate chefs and restauranteurs to locate and invest in Quincy’s downtown.

Propel Marketing (owned by GateHouse Media) and the GateHouse Media New England group responded to only the first of the three services in the RFP scope, amplifying Quincy’s story with a marketing campaign. Propel had no intent of cultivating positive media, nor did they intend to cultivate chefs and restauranteurs, as the former is inappropriate and the latter not their expertise.

Propel Marketing created and submitted a proposal for an advertising and marketing campaign. The proposal included digital marketing services, print ads in local GateHouse newspapers and online display ads on WickedLocal.com.  The proposal did not include any form of native advertising, sponsored content or branded content.  Nor did it include any mention of blogs, blog posts or articles.

The proposal was submitted from GateHouse Media, rather than from Propel Marketing, because it included both Propel services and GateHouse newspaper ads, in print and online.

Neither the Propel sales rep, nor the GateHouse sales rep, had conversations with editorial staff about Quincy Center coverage. There was never a plan to ask the newsroom for favorable coverage, reflecting a clear separation of church and state. Just as a politician can buy an ad and have no expectation for favorable coverage, Propel sells marketing services with absolutely no expectation for involvement by our newsrooms.

We take the independence of our news coverage incredibly seriously and are committed to ensuring that our standards are upheld in every area of our business.

GateHouse creates a dilemma for its Quincy journalists

Quincy City Hall. Photo via Wikipedia.
Quincy City Hall. Photo via Wikipedia.

At CommonWealth Magazine, Jack Sullivan offers a good overview of a massive conflict of interest in Quincy, where GateHouse Media’s marketing subsidiary is bidding for a city contract in the shadow of GateHouse’s Patriot Ledger, headquartered in Quincy.

The GateHouse subsidiary, Propel Marketing, has already done work for Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch.

We’ve already been talking about this at Facebook, so feel free to chime in.

My insta-analysis is that newspaper owners always create conflicts of interest. Washington Post reporters have to cover Amazon, whose founder and chief executive is the Post‘s owner, Jeff Bezos. To extend that a little further, Amazon does business with the CIA, a major beat for the Post. The Boston Globe, owned by John Henry, covers the Red Sox, and Henry is the principal owner. And newspaper publishers have always held roles in the community that journalists shouldn’t, such as chairing the local chamber of commerce.

What matters is whether those conflicts are handled in a way that’s transparent, ethical, and arm’s-length. Given GateHouse’s recent misadventures involving casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I’d say the Quincy situation needs to be watched very closely.

Jay Rosen has been indispensable in understanding the Las Vegas mess. Here’s what I wrote for WGBHNews.org about how one independent Connecticut journalist exposed part of the story. And here’s how the Patriot Ledger itself covered the Quincy story recently. It’s thorough in just the way you’d want it to be, so kudos.

Correction: In the first version of this post I wrote that the Patriot Ledger‘s headquarters are in Braintree. In fact, the Ledger is located in an office park on the Quincy side of the Quincy-Braintree line.