The Massachusetts Public Records Law is clear. All government records are presumed to be public, but cities and towns are allowed to withhold certain documents based on exemptions. Personnel records, for example, can often be kept private.
If a person requests a document that has been withheld, it takes the supervisor of public records to review the record and determine if the exemption given to withhold it is legitimate. The supervisor then either tells the person requesting the documents why she supports the decision to withhold or orders the government entity to release the document.
In Aquinnah, government officials don’t follow the rules.
In 2015, Todd Wallack and the Boston Globe partnered with Channel 5 and used journalism students from Northeastern University to test public records compliance across the state. For that test, Aquinnah returned the letter requesting records because the student’s name was typed, not signed. There are a lot of exemptions to the public records law. That’s not one of them.
Not much has changed with the Island’s tiniest town since 2015. Like Frank Sinatra, they do things their way. That’s not OK.
Earlier this year, The Times requested documents pertaining to the health board’s response to COVID-19. The town set a fee for the records, but failed to provide an explanation of why the fees would be charged. This is a typical tactic used by government entities to dissuade requestors of records requests. The records we’re asking for should be available electronically with the click of a few keys on the keyboard. In an appeal to the supervisor of public records, the town was ordered on March 1 to explain the fees and turn over the records, but town administrator Jeffrey Madison has not complied. Madison asked for more time to supply the documents saying he was tied up preparing for town meeting.
We understood and cut him some slack. But Aquinnah town meeting was in June and here we are almost the whole way through July and Madison still hasn’t produced the records.
Madison is a lawyer and he’s a judge in the Mashpee Wampanoag judicial system. He understands law and should comply.
It’s not just records law — Aquinnah has also had recent issues with open meeting and conflict of interest laws.
The “retirement” of Richard Skidmore as lighthouse keeper is an example of the town flirting with open meeting compliance. On the board’s July 13 agenda, the town listed an executive session for the “lighthouse keeper position.” That agenda item came on the heels of the select board discussing its vaccination requirements on July 7 and indicating that an employee had “resigned” rather than comply. Newly elected board member Thomas Murphy urged the board to stop discussing the issue and to do it during a future executive session.
Like public records law, the open meeting statute provides certain exemptions for a board to discuss town business behind closed doors, but those exemptions are very specific. When it comes to personnel, the only applicable exemptions are contract negotiations or “to discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.”
Not only did the select board not provide the exemption on the agenda, but they never went into executive session to discuss the lighthouse keeper’s position. Instead, the board announced Skidmore’s retirement and pivoted to go into executive session to discuss contract negotiations with police. While that’s an allowed exemption, the board is required to provide notice on its agenda.
Finally, there is select board chair Gary Haley, who is accused of an ethics violation by the state. Haley, an electrical contractor, hired himself to do town work and then overcharged taxpayers for that work, according to the state’s determination. This all relates to an electrical conduit job at Aquinnah Circle. Haley told the select board he’d do it for free, but ended up charging the town. He’ll have a hearing before the ethics commission in October, where Haley tells us he’ll be exonerated.
In defending his actions, Haley gives the “remote town” excuse. “We were put in that predicament because we couldn’t get Comcast and Eversource and whoever else out there at the same time, so I was at that meeting, and I just said I will do it for free,” Haley said. “Obviously things changed part of the way through, but that’s how it was. It was an emergency that needed to be taken care of. If there was someone along the way who didn’t like the way things were regarding that, well, I’m sorry, but it had to be done at that point in time.”
Three different laws, the same lack of accountability. Aquinnah needs to do better.