Mayor Martin J. Walsh has refused to release information gathered by the city on the gender and race or ethnicity of municipal employees, a decision that breaks with longstanding city policy and makes it difficult to assess whether the workforce reflects the changing face of Boston.
Attorneys for the Walsh administration cited privacy concerns this week when they rejected a public records request from the Globe seeking gender and race or ethnicity information for each of the 20,000 people on the city payroll on March 31, which would include the mayor’s most recent hires. The administration also rejected a similar request from Councilor Charles C. Yancey, said Walsh’s press secretary.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration routinely provided gender and ethnicity data in response to records requests. In an interview, Walsh raised concerns about the method the previous administration used to gather the information and its accuracy. He vowed to revamp the system and pledged to release the gender and ethnicity data for individual employees once he is confident it is accurate, although he would not commit to a timeline.
“We’ll release it as soon as I have it; I’m not against that,” Walsh said. “We’re a public entity. I’m not going to keep any public information away from the public.”
Pamela Wilmot, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause Massachusetts, said that under state law, concerns about inaccuracies do not constitute a valid reason for withholding public records.
Wilmot also questioned the privacy exemption cited by Walsh’s attorneys, saying that “there are no cases that I have seen” supporting their decision to withhold the records.
“The court has been very clear about a very broad definition of what a public record is and that only intimate details of a highly personal nature can be excluded,” Wilmot said. “This is certainly a step back for transparency, and it makes it more difficult [for the administration] to be accountable for the diversity standard. It’s disappointing.”
Walsh campaigned on a promise to build an administration that reflects the diversity of Boston, a city in which people of color and women make up more than half the population. A Globe analysis of payroll records found that in Walsh’s first month in office, his hires were overwhelmingly white and predominantly male.
The first wave of new employees included 39 hired for nonunion positions controlled by the mayor. The Globe determined the gender and ethnicity of the new employees and shared its findings with Walsh. In a subsequent records request, the Globe sought gender and ethnicity data for all city employees.
Shortly after becoming mayor, Walsh hired his close friend and colleague from the state Legislature, Eugene L. O’Flaherty, to be the city’s corporation counsel. The city notified the Globe Tuesday that it was rejecting the request for gender and ethnicity data.
In an interview, Yancey said he had not heard about the status of his public records request but expressed concern that records might be withheld.
“How can we measure the diversity of the city of Boston [workforce] if we don’t have that information and can’t share it?” Yancey asked. “This strikes at the issue of transparency. I’m concerned because we are talking about city government. This is not the personal purview of any individual. The public, I believe, has a right to know.”
Walsh said the previous administration relied largely on the visual observations of payroll officials to determine gender and ethnicity.
“I was bothered by it,” Walsh said, adding that it was “unfair and discriminatory for people” because the old system did not give city workers the opportunity to self-identify their gender and ethnicity.
At the Globe’s request, Walsh’s administration provided a form filled out by new city employees. It seeks information on gender and race or ethnicity and offers five categories: white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and native Alaskan.
Kate Norton , Walsh’s press secretary, said the form is problematic. in part because it does not give employees the opportunity to check a box stating that they do not want to identify their ethnic background. The Menino administration relied largely on visual identification — and not information from the form — to determine employees’ gender and ethnicity, Norton said.
Vivian Leonard, Boston’s longtime director of human resources and a member of both the Menino and Walsh administrations, was not available Wednesday night for an interview, Norton said.
Some leaders in the city’s black community underscored the importance of the city releasing racial and ethnicity data for municipal employees.
“I believe that candidate Walsh indicated that his administration would be transparent in all they would say and do,’’ said Darnell L. Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and a member of the mayor’s transition team. “I believe that he would do what the previous administration has already done’’ on this issue.
Captain Darrell Higginbottom, vice president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, which promotes minority employment in the Boston Fire Department, urged Walsh to disclose ethnicity data as soon as possible.
“They should be released, especially in regards to the Fire Department, where we have a real issue with diversity,’’ Higginbottom said.
The Rev. Miniard Culpepper said residents of Boston should know the makeup of the city’s workforce at the beginning of Walsh’s administration so they have a way to measure his commitment to diversity deeper into his term.
“This is the end of Menino’s term, and the beginning of” Walsh’s, Culpepper said. “I don’t think that it is a reflection of his commitment to diversity, but I think it would be helpful to know this information at this starting point.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.