State senator wants Rhode Island to join 49 other states in making votes instantly available

May 24, 2010 by

By State Sen. Lou Raptakis (D-Coventry, R.I.)

People have a right to know how their elected officials are voting and when that information is kept from people, it is a sure sign of a broken system.  As a member of the Rhode Island legislature for 18 years, I’ve seen numerous efforts to modernize the workings of the General Assembly.  The latest attempt to force our legislature to join the electronic age is a bill I have introduced that would provide citizens with timely access to the voting records of the Rhode Island House and Senate — both the floor votes and committee votes.

Rhode Island is lagging behind the rest of the country by failing to make legislative information easily available.  Every other state makes voting records available online as a basic recognition that in the 21st century citizens deserve timely access to this information.  We have the technology to do what other states are doing. Now we need the commitment from legislators to let their votes be reported to their constituents in a timely way.  This is the key to promoting accountable and responsible government.          

We have seen what happens when decisions are made in the middle of the night, when hundreds of bills are being considered in just two days.  It leaves people feeling frustrated and disconnected from their government.  This is our opportunity to fix that and let the citizens of Rhode Island know that we are serious about doing the public business the right way.

Among the organizations speaking out in favor of the legislation were Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and Operation Clean Government.  These are groups that have been promoting good government for decades in Rhode Island. Along with new citizen action groups, members of the public, and the media, we are working to promote this legislation to make government accessible and accountable. It is crucial that we as a legislative body finally amend the processes by which we make information public, so voters can obtain information easily and in a realistic time frame.

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Quest for “Marty,” pizza dinner add up to big legal bills for Southborough, Mass.

May 24, 2010 by

By Richard Lodge, editor, MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass.

What started as a quest by Southborough town officials to identify an anonymous online critic named “Marty,” evolved into a secret probe of eight town employees who met after work at a pizza restaurant last September.

Early in May, Southborough selectmen publicly exonerated eight present and former employees, including Town Administrator Jean Kitchen, Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale, former Town Planner Vera Kolias and Public Works superintendent Karen Galligan. The eight were investigated after selectmen received a complaint from the former assistant town clerk about comments allegedly made about then-interim Police Chief Jane Moran at an after-work pizza dinner at Uno in Westborough last September. Moran was subsequently named permanent police chief in November.

The complaint reportedly involved comments made “in the presence of non-town employees who the subject of the comment has to deal with and also in the presence of a person who was competing for a position.”

The complaint to selectmen spawned the probe, which entailed the town hiring outside lawyers. The probe, in turn, prompted several of the town employees under investigation to hire their own lawyers.

The employees first learned they were under investigation when they were called to an executive session with selectmen on Oct. 22. 2009. At that closed-door meeting, interim Chief Moran accused the employees of trying to undermine her, according to several people at the meeting.

On May 10, Hingham attorney James Lampke, who was hired by the town to look into what was discussed at the gathering at Uno, released the report of his investigation, exonerating the eight employees. Days earlier, after a four-hour closed-door meeting, selectmen announced the eight employees had been cleared after the probe.

The MetroWest Daily News has filed a public records request for minutes of that executive session since, under the Open Meeting Law, it would appear the reason to keep the records of the discussion secret has passed.  The request for minutes was hand-delivered on Friday, May 14, and the town has ten business days to respond.

The Daily News also filed a public records request with Southborough selectmen seeking a breakdown of legal expenses for the town relating to the probe. Assistant Town Manager Vanessa Hale told the newspaper it could see redacted copies of the legal bills, funneled through Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano, but the charge would be more than $200.

“Town policy dictates that the charge for a records request is based upon the hourly rate made by the lowest paid employee capable of completing the requested task,” Hale told the Daily News. “Since no one other than Aldo (Cipriano, the town counsel) can redact the bills, the charge you’re seeing is what he charges per hour for his work.”

Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office said this week an attorney will be assigned to look into the newspaper’s complaint about the cost cited for copies of the legal bills.

The newspaper’s request is for legal bills from Cipriano and two outside lawyers, Barry Bachrach and Lampke, who investigated the pizza dinner discussions and an earlier investigation to uncover the identity of “Marty,” an online poster who Southborough selectmen said wrote inaccurate comments on a local blog regarding the hiring of Moran as police chief.

 In April, the Daily News reviewed redacted copies of Bachrach’s legal bills for the unsuccessful search for “Marty’s” identity, which showed the attorney billed the town more than $3,000 for the work. Copies of the bills were obtained by Southborough resident Al Hamilton, who made his own public records request for bills related to the “Marty” investigation.

The Daily News also obtained a copy from a Personnel Board member of an invoice from Lampke. That bill showed charges to the town, just for the month of February, of $2,315 for “personnel issues.” But until copies of all legal bills are made available to the newspaper, it’s impossible to report the total cost of outside legal work to Southborough taxpayers.

Somerville, Mass. streaming Board of Alderman meetings

May 20, 2010 by

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone

By Joseph A. Curtatone, mayor, and John Connolly, chairman, Board of Aldermen, Somerville, Mass. 

Last week Somerville became the first city in the state to stream its Board of Aldermen meeting live on the Internet. While that has a certain wow factor for those of us involved, we’re keeping our focus on where this technical step forward can lead us. 

One of the challenges municipal government has faced in recent decades is getting citizen participation. People lead busy lives and that makes it difficult to stay on top of what’s happening with your local government. And we’re competing with international, federal and state issues for the sliver of time people can devote to staying plugged into what’s happening in the world around them. 

Board of Alderman Chairman John Connolly

If we don’t make ourselves more accessible we risk losing the citizen input that is vital to properly doing our jobs as elected officials. We feel this even more acutely in Somerville, where approximately 42 percent of the population is age 21-35. A big slice of our population is relatively new to our city and unfamiliar with the issues we face inside the city government. Yet they are wired. If we want to bring those younger adult residents into the fold, we have to connect with them on their terms. 

Fortunately we’re doing more than just streaming the aldermen’s meetings. The meetings are available on demand after their conclusion. They will also be segmented by topic, allowing online viewers to go straight to the portions of the meeting that most interest them. So our residents will be able to watch the meetings from any location where they can get an Internet connection, whenever they want, and only the parts of the meetings they wish to watch. 

Our hope is we can build from here. We have opportunities to link the archived video with our own content (media- and document-based). Social media tie-ins seem like a natural next step. And hopefully this evolves in ways we haven’t anticipated. That will mean we’ve got brand new conduits into our community, which is what we really want to build here. 

 

 

 

Patrick administration drags its feet over Gillette Stadium footbridge e-mails

May 19, 2010 by

By Glen Johnson, reporter, Boston, Mass. bureau, Associated Press 

When we learned that Gov. Deval Patrick, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and the Massachusetts Democratic Party received maximum campaign donations from Robert and Myra Kraft as the state was considering using federal stimulus money to build a pedestrian bridge near the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, I filed a FOIA for all e-mail traffic about the project.

The most timely response was the one indicating the Department of Transportation had received it.

It wasn’t until six month later that the papers were finally delivered: a foot-high stack released to us at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday.

We were still able to make weekend deadlines with a story about how DOT engineers felt pressured from the governor’s office and the Krafts to forge ahead with the project, but the getting there wasn’t easy.

 A month after the AP’s Dec. 7 request, we asked for a status update. We were told it was a voluminous request and we might be smart to pare it back. Not wanting to do that, we told the administration we would wait. Possible release dates in February, March and April all elapsed, with various explanations about the redaction requirements.

 Finally, as the AP broached the subject of having its FOIA lawyer intervene, the administration said the material would be released Monday, May 10. When the AP followed up, it was told a department lawyer who needed to give final signoff was in India, so the documents would be released by Tuesday, May 11. That date came and went, and then, at 1 p.m. Friday, the administration said the materials would be available in an hour.

The AP obtained them, then wrote a story detailing the six-month wait and quoting Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan as denying any effort to quash negative news by releasing the materials at a traditionally slow news time heading into the weekend.

N.H. high-speed police cruiser crash details shielded by “privacy” act

May 18, 2010 by

By Howard Altschiller, executive editor, Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth, N.H.

A stunning report about a Seabrook, N.H. police cruiser that was traveling at more than 100 mph when it crashed in February was leaked to the Portsmouth Herald last week, but the legal battle over public access to those records carries on. 

A redacted copy of the March 19 Department of Motor Vehicles report was provided to the paper by an anonymous source after the Herald filed a Right to Know request for records pertaining to the Feb. 5 crash. The Department of Safety has so far refused to release any of the records on the grounds they’re protected by the “Driver Privacy Act.”

The Herald published the details of the report in a May 12 story, but still plans to press ahead with a hearing scheduled for next week to have the full dossier released to the public.

 A police officer and a pickup-up truck driver were injured after the cruiser blew through a red light in North Hampton at a speed topping 100 mph, the DMV report showed. The report also revealed the officer violated three state laws pertaining to emergency vehicles by failing to proceed through a red light after having slowed “as necessary for safe operation,” driving at an unreasonable speed which endangered life and property, and failing to drive the cruiser with “due regard for the safety of all persons.”

 The police cruiser was trying to pull over another vehicle traveling at more than 100 mph when the collision occurred, state investigators said.

 The Herald filed a motion for reports related to the cruiser crash with Merrimack County Superior Court on April 12, after all of the involved law enforcement agencies, including New Hampshire State Police and the state Department of Safety, refused to release any information or comment about the crash.

During a May 3 hearing on the matter in the Concord Superior Court, Senior Assistant Attorney General Mark Hodgdon said the Driver Privacy Act exempts motor vehicle records from the state’s Right to Know law.

No exception can be made “for the curious,” Hodgdon wrote in a motion filed with the court at the onset of the hearing.

Representing the Herald, attorney Benjamin King, of the Concord law firm of Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, countered that the Privacy Act is designed to protect personal information about private individuals, not “to shield possible police misconduct.”

King said the Herald will continue to litigate the case for all of the crash records, noting the likelihood that the state will deny similar requests in the future.

N.H. judge sides with newspaper in criminal annulment case

May 17, 2010 by

By Howard Altschiller, executive editor, Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth, N.H.

Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Diane M. Nicolosi has made an important ruling in favor of the public’s right to know and against the state’s poorly written criminal annulment law.

Her ruling is a victory for common sense and should be very helpful to a legislative committee forming to review and recommend improvements to the annulment law.

On April 22, Nicolosi dismissed a civil suit against former Rockingham County Sheriff Dan Linehan, Maj. Mark Peirce and former Portsmouth Herald reporter Karen Dandurant, filed by failed Rockingham County sheriff candidate David Lovejoy.

In the suit, Lovejoy claimed his privacy had been violated when Linehan and Peirce allegedly leaked, and when Dandurant and the Herald published an article, revealing Lovejoy had been convicted of domestic simple assault in 1989.

“The information disclosed was truthful, provided to a mainstream and reputable newspaper, and was presented in a way that was without vitriolic comment or exaggeration … The truthful dissemination of information that had once been in the public domain, in the context of a competition for public office, cannot be said to be so outrageous that it would transgress the bounds of decency,” Nicolosi wrote in her decision.

The judge further stated: “The truth is that plaintiff (Lovejoy) committed a domestic simple assault in 1989, and his conviction for this offense was subsequently annulled. The fact that a record of arrest and conviction may not now be open to the public does not make it disappear as though it never happened; nor does one’s character change on the day an annulment is granted.”

While the judge’s ruling is a great step forward, the Lovejoy case really is an exaggerated version of much larger questions the state needs to address regarding its annulment laws. Those questions include: What constitutes “disclosure and communication” of an annulled record? What types of crimes, if any, are reasonable to annul and which are far too important to the public’s right to know to ever legally hide? Should there be different standards for disclosing the annulled records of public and private figures? Nicolosi’s ruling makes clear that public figures shouldn’t be able to hide behind annulment laws, but what about business people who have committed fraud? Don’t people doing business with those convicted of fraud have a right to know they have a criminal past? That would seem relevant to us.

Finally, the whole issue becomes even more complicated in an age when public records, including records of conviction that are subsequently annulled, are forever accessible online.

These are just a few reasons why the Legislature needs to approve a committee to study the annulment law. At this point the committee has passed the House and Senate. We encourage the governor to sign the committee into law as soon as possible.

Meeting minutes show ex-New Bedford school chief planned to “sit on her butt,” collect check

May 13, 2010 by

By Charis Anderson, reporter, The Standard Times, New Bedford, Mass.

After almost two tumultuous years, former New Bedford School Superintendent Portia Bonner abruptly resigned her position on April 9.

The resignation came just days after a highly charged closed-door meeting of the School Committee during which Bonner locked horns with Mayor Scott W. Lang, the committee’s chairman ex officio.

The committee discussed and accepted Bonner’s resignation – and reached consensus on whom to appoint as the next superintendent – during another executive session meeting on April 9.

I had reported on the outcome of both meetings, but not in any detail about what had happened during those meetings, and in order to do so, I needed copies of the meeting minutes.

I prepared a public records request that I submitted to the mayor’s office on May 13, asking for the executive session minutes from both meetings. I argued that as Bonner’s resignation had been publicly announced, the stated need for executive session protection had ceased and the minutes should be released immediately.

Although there was some initial reluctance to make the minutes public, the School Committee did approve and release the minutes within two weeks of my request.

The minutes were revealing in two ways. First, they captured the extent and nature of Bonner’s outburst during the initial meeting: After being told by the mayor that he would not vote to extend her contract, Bonner replied that “she would sit on her butt and collect a paycheck for her last year and spend time looking for a new job,” the minutes stated.

The minutes from the second meeting were interesting for what they revealed about the manner in which the new superintendent was chosen. The mayor put forward a name, and the committee agreed with no discussion.

 I’m still reporting on new developments in this story, and having the minutes out there has been critical to my – and the community’s – understanding of how the roots of the story developed.

Coalition of lawmakers seek “functional democracy” in Mass. House

May 11, 2010 by

By State Rep. Thomas M. Stanley (D-Waltham, Mass.) 

A group of state representatives have come together to restore the balance of power in the membership in the Massachusetts House and ensure that issues receive both proper consideration and debate.  Our goal is to make the House a more open and transparent place so we have proposed a number of reforms to combat increasing power consolidation in the hands of the leadership in the House.

Over the past few years, power has been consolidated in the hands of the small leadership team, leaving the rest of the representatives increasingly at their mercy. This near-complete consolidation of power has been intensifying over years, making it more and more difficult to legislate on behalf of our districts and constituents. Our group knows that this is not the way to run a government, and has proposed a number of reforms to combat increasing power consolidation in the hands of the leadership in the House. These reforms will:

Ensure that home-rule petitions can be discharged from the Rules Committee in a timely fashion;

Make the state budget process in the House more transparent, and make the House operating budget specifics accessible to all members;

Provide a leadership election and committee appointment process that distributes more power to the members;  and

Provide legislators with greater control of the operating budgets for their offices and eliminate or narrow legislative exemptions to the open meeting law, public records law and purchasing standards.

We want the House to become a functional democracy. We want each bill deliberated in the committees and referred to the floor based on merit, where it will be fully debated.  A representative form of government is supposed to give us all a voice at the table so the interests of our constituents are adequately represented, but when all power is put in the hands of one person, it corrupts that process and opens the door to abuse.

To learn more, search for “Representatives for Reform” on Facebook.  Join us and contribute to the open and honest discourse to make real reforms within the House and improve the governance of Massachusetts.

 

Elena Kagan and free speech

May 11, 2010 by

By Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism, Northeastern University

Does Solicitor General Elena Kagan have a problem with the First Amendment?

After President Obama announced Kagan as his choice to replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, liberal and left-wing commentators zeroed in on her unflagging support for broad executive authority.

But there are reasons to be concerned about her commitment to freedom of expression as well.

In 2002, I singled out Harvard University for a Dishonorable Mention in the Phoenix Muzzle Awards for banning military recruiters from campus over its discriminatory policies against gay men and lesbians. Kagan did not become dean of Harvard Law School until 2003, but her support for that ban has quickly emerged as an issue in her confirmation.

(In 2004, for good measure, I gave then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld a Muzzle for forcing the matter by threatening to cut off federal funds to colleges and universities that banned recruiters.)

More recently, Kagan appeared before the Supreme Court to defend a federal law prohibiting the depiction of animal cruelty. As solicitor general, she was merely doing her job. But University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, a former colleague of Kagan’s, recently told NPR’s “On the Media” that she went above and beyond the call of duty, proposing a case-by-case balancing test that could have posed a serious threat to freedom of speech. Stone said:

It really was a dangerous argument for the Solicitor General to make. It would have, if accepted, completely revolutionized a large part of First Amendment doctrine, losing the gains we’ve made throughout the 20th century…. Kagan would probably say she inherited this case; when she became solicitor general it was already in process. Nonetheless, I have to say that I was surprised that Elena didn’t take a red pen and scratch those parts of the brief out.

Kagan also argued vigorously against the notion that corporations should be allowed to spend freely on political speech, as stipulated in the recent Citizens United decision. And Obama cited that decision as one of his reasons for appointing her. I have mixed feelings about the ruling — like my Muzzle colleague Harvey Silverglate, I think it was directionally right, but I’m concerned about the consequences.

(By the way, Silverglate and Kyle Smeallie recently wrote an in-depth analysis for the Phoenix of Kagan’s record in anticipation of her appointment. Definitely a must-read.)

Nevertheless, Citizens United stands as yet another example of what appears to be Kagan’s approach to free speech: to cast it aside whenever it competes with her other goals and objectives.

What’s in a name? Cops won’t say

May 9, 2010 by

By Chazy Dowaliby, editor, The Patriot Ledger and The Enterprise, Quincy and Brockton, Mass.

 Two times within two weeks police in the same southeastern Massachusetts jurisdiction decided to withhold the names of persons charged in high profile crimes.

It’s not the first time The Patriot Ledger or other GateHouse New England newspapers have encountered this unexplained refusal to name names. But seeing it twice within a 14-day period – relating to very high-profile incidents — had us asking for legal clarification.

The first case involved a series of incidents along Route 3 in Kingston. Passenger-side windows of five vehicles were shattered between March 17 and March 19 by projectiles fired from the side of the road.  Hundreds of vehicles use this main north–south artery and people were frightened. When State Police, working with Plymouth and Kingston police departments made arrests on April 2, identification was simply stated as a 19-year-old man and an 18-year-old man. Their names were not released because “the investigation is continuing.”  The names of the individuals were obtained at the arraignment the following day, and police never explained why they didn’t ID the men earlier.

 On Sunday, April 16, and even more puzzling incidence occurred when two teenage walkers in a multiple sclerosis fundraiser and an 80-year-old church volunteer were struck by a pickup truck in a crosswalk in downtown Plymouth. The woman driver then hit a wall.

 The police released the names of the victims, but declined to release the name of the driver, saying she had been “traumatized” and they did not want to subject her to publicity.  Since they did not arrest her, only charging her with driving to endanger, there was no police log or arrest record to view.

On Thursday, April 20, the Ledger hand delivered a public records request for a copy of the accident report to the Plymouth police. They gave it to us within hours. In searching her name we then learned that the driver had been found at fault in four previous accidents since 2006 – three of them in 2009 in Plymouth.

 Can police do this? Yes.

It all depends on how the person is charged, at what time of day the official arrest report is filed and a few other hairs that can be split numerous ways.

The good news about the two recent incidents is that we are no longer alone in putting pressure on law enforcement to release information. Our onlinecomments stream maintained its own spotlight replete with conspiracy theories, hometown connections and all manner of possible reasons names weren’t being named.