A win — possibly! — for government transparency
In a possible win for government transparency, the latest turn of events in the Globe’s quest for records from the governor’s office could have far more wide-reaching implications for future records requests to that office.
In January we heard Governor Charlie Baker say on the radio that the recent controversy over legislative pay raises generated a lot of calls from voters. We got curious what else folks call about.
When we first asked about phone calls, Baker’s office declined to answer our questions, so we filed a public records request. His office denied the request and we appealed it to the secretary of state’s office.
Ask and you never know what you might receive. Our request seems to have opened that long-slammed shut door to the executive office, if only a crack.
For years the governor’s office in Massachusetts has denied many public records requests, citing a 1997 court case, known as Lambert, that the office claims exempts it from all such requests.
The previous supervisor of records, Shawn Williams, agreed with that interpretation.
For instance, in 2015, the supervisor of records ruled that the governor’s office didn’t have to release any text messages exchanged with Baker or any communications the office had related to Baker’s public comments about the Confederate flag. In June 2015, Baker apologized after initially defending Southern states’ right to fly the controversial banner at their capitols.
Massachusetts is currently one of only two states where the governor’s office claims to be completely exempt from the public records laws — Michigan is the other — though the governor’s office says it voluntarily complies with some public records requests.
As part of an overhaul of the public records law approved last year, a legislative commission is also charged with examining whether the public records law should cover the governor’s office, Legislature, and judiciary. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation where all three arms of government claim to be exempt.
However, the new supervisor of records, Rebecca S. Murray, who took over this year, appears to be questioning whether the Lambert case truly exempts every record in the governor’s office, including documents that are not personal to the governor himself.
In a March 15 letter to the governor’s attorney, Murray asked the office to turn over the records about constituent phone calls or else provide more information about why it believes these specific records are not subject to disclosure.
The secretary of state’s office, through a spokesman, declined to elaborate on the letter, saying the order speaks for itself.
We’ll let you know what happens next.