“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” -U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
Once again we are joining newspapers in New England and across the country in recognizing 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.”
As we’ve said in the past, Sunshine Week provides an opportunity to shine the light on the importance of transparency.
Sunshine Week is from March 13 to 19, but it’s really an everyday effort for us. Over the past year, there have been several instances where public records have allowed The Times to bring you information that holds Island leaders accountable and better informs the public about decisions made by their elected officials.
At a town meeting last May, Edgartown officials indefinitely postponed an article that proposed using Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for repairs to the Old Whaling Church. There’s nothing all that unusual about using CPA money for restoration of a historic building, but no information was given on why this expenditure was being indefinitely postponed. Times reporter Brian Dowd requested and received public records that showed some invoices for the project had been altered. There was a police investigation that resulted in no criminal charges, but Funi Burdick resigned as executive director of the Vineyard Preservation Trust.
In August, reporter Rich Saltzberg used public records to share never-before-released details about a heinous crime in Tisbury 10 years earlier — the rape of a babysitter after police had been to the house for a reported domestic assault. The records, which included police reports, internal investigation material, and transcripts, were something that the town desperately tried to keep out of our hands. Then once we reported on what happened accurately, the town administrator Jay Grande went after our reporting with a press release. Grande didn’t allege that anything was wrong with the reporting, didn’t ask for a single correction, but referred to the reporting as “contemptible and dangerous.” A follow-up article on the same case showed that police failed to call for backup from other town police departments that could have kept the young woman safe that night.
It’s also public records that helped shine the light on some bullying behavior by Tisbury select board member Jeff Kristal. In July, The Times learned that Kristal had asked a traffic officer to target a Main Street business owner with traffic tickets. Kristal’s behavior, which was described by the business owner as bullying, would have been hidden if it weren’t for the police report written by the traffic officer, the police chief, and the public records law that requires releasing such a record.
It was also public records released by Tisbury that revealed there is a missing Glock handgun that to this day remains unaccounted for at the police department. Instead of launching an independent investigation requested by then–Police Chief Mark Saloio, the police department and town have chosen to sweep it under the rug, hoping the embarrassing situation won’t ever emerge again.
The Times was able to fill in a lot of blanks about another missing gun that resulted in a longtime police sergeant resigning from the Oak Bluffs Police Department. In that case, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about who else is responsible.
There are many other examples of The Times requesting and receiving public records. They provide background information for simple stories like real estate purchases, and provide corroborating information on bigger investigations. Rich Saltzberg was also recently able to force the release of dozens of executive minutes, some of them dating back several years. Boards are allowed to meet behind closed doors based on certain exemptions, including for personnel decisions, but minutes are supposed to be released as soon as the reason for the executive session has passed.
The one thing that those serving in public office need to remember is that they’re called public records for a reason. Public officials are in office to do the public’s business, and under certain circumstances, they are allowed to keep documents hidden from public view. But by and large, documents are presumed to be public, and should be released without a struggle.
Instead, we run into attorneys like Jack Collins. Collins has been working for Sheriff Robert Ogden in attempting to keep visitor logs for the Edgartown Jail under wraps. He tries to disparage The Times in his briefs to the supervisor of public records, referring to the newspaper as a “tabloid,” which should be a reference to the size of the print edition, but is often used to criticize editorial quality.
“Let’s be clear about one thing:This is not a case where there is any legitimate public purpose to be served by disclosing the requested information,” Collins wrote. “While publishing the identities of prisoners and their visitors may satisfy some salacious curiosity on the part of some readers of the requesting reporter’s tabloid, and it may increase circulation, it will do so much harm that no responsible sheriff on this small Island would agree to release such information.”
While it’s disappointing that Collins would take this approach and that Ogden would allow it, we won’t let it discourage us from attempting to shine a light into the darkness.