Let the sunshine in

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This week is National Sunshine Week, which was created by the American Society of News Editors “to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.”

Today we are joining our colleagues throughout New England in writing about the importance of open government and public records by highlighting some of the ways we’ve been thwarted by the government to better inform you, and to highlight some of the ways we’ve used them to shine a necessary spotlight that promoted change.

Sunshine Week is from March 15 to March 21, but it’s really an everyday effort for us. Right now, some government agency has a public records request from us and they’ll either do the right thing and turn them over or provide a reason to exempt them. If they withhold them, we’ll use the state supervisor of public records to make a determination if that’s a legitimate withholding of the records.

Last week, for example, we received documents from a public records request pertaining to a sexual harassment case involving an Edgartown police officer. The town turned over an independent investigation that must have worn out a black Sharpie. It is almost completely redacted. The town is claiming the personnel exemption in the public records law. 

We’re appealing to the state supervisor of public records who has been very clear on internal investigations involving police officers based on a court case between the Boston Globe and the Boston police commissioner. “Finally, Judge Grasso closed his discussion by further delineating the difference between internal affairs records and disciplinary records by stating, ‘it would be odd, indeed, to shield from the light of public scrutiny as personnel [file] or information the workings and determinations of a process whose quintessential purpose is to inspire public confidence,’” the supervisor’s guidance about police investigations states.

Ultimately, the town will be forced to turn over a less redacted copy of their investigation, but for now we remain disappointed with the town’s lack of transparency.

But Edgartown is not alone. It’s a common practice for Tisbury’s town attorney to play the cat and mouse game with public records. Most recently, it was the case of Stephen Nichols, the crossing guard who allegedly made threats against the Tisbury School. He was removed from his job, and had his guns seized. Initially, the town refused our request for public records citing the personnel exemption and ultimately the supervisor ruled in our favor. Tisbury, and more specifically, its attorney, has lost every case we’ve brought to appeal. Selectmen are promising to be more open and transparent after that last embarrassing episode. Time will tell if that happens.

In Oak Bluffs, it was public records surrounding former Fire Chief John Rose that ultimately shined the light on unrest in that department that had been bubbling at the surface for the better part of three years. A Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint and lawsuit by a former employee claiming sexual harassment led to a payment by the town’s insurance company to settle those claims. But it was the executive session minutes that were released that showed the divide among the town’s selectmen. While at least one selectman wanted to fire Rose, others were willing to keep him on board and provide him with an action plan. When the records became public, the town and Rose worked out a separation agreement that allowed the chief to retire.

Reporter Rich Saltzberg has used public records on many fronts — frustrated but undeterred by the government’s initial reaction to often balk at his requests. His reporting on the lead contamination at the West Chop housing for the U.S. Coast Guard is an example. As a result of his reporting that showed the Coast Guard knew about lead contamination surrounding the housing and didn’t warn the families moving in, the Coast Guard came up with a plan to review its housing stock across the country for potential contaminants. There’s still some information in the darkness on this one. In one of Saltzberg’s recent Freedom of Information Act requests, the Coast Guard gave Edgartown a run for its money on use of a black Sharpie. We’re appealing.

And it was Editor George Brennan’s use of public records that showed a builder didn’t have the proper permits when he bulldozed a historic house on Vineyard Haven Harbor called the Mill House, which was built before the Revolutionary War. That reporting prompted the town to come up with a way to create a database of historic buildings in Tisbury.

These are just a few of the many examples of our commitment to hold local, state, and the federal government accountable. As an industry, we celebrate that commitment during Sunshine Week. As a news organization, we live that commitment every day.