Galvin’s slow motion public records office

the state office charged with ruling on the appeals of citizens whose requests for public records have been denied operates at a snail’s pace.

About 250 appeals are filed each year with the state Division of Public Records, but it often takes months to get a decision even though four full-time lawyers plus a full-time administrative assistant work in the office, and many of their decisions are copy-and-paste jobs because the appeals are so similar.

“I don’t know what they do with their time,” says one lawyer who has filed a number of appeals with the office and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he deals with officials there frequently. “Most of the cases they see are same-old, same-old.”

Secretary of State William Galvin, the elected official who oversees the Public Records Law, declined to comment for this article, as did Shawn Williams, who, as supervisor of public records, heads up Galvin’s public records division.

Cambridge Chronicle reporter Scott Wachtler last October filed a public records request with the city of Cambridge for copies of settlement agreements made with two city employees, Mary Wong and Linda Stamper. When the city denied Wachtler’s request, he filed an appeal last November. He thought the appeal would be handled quickly because Galvin’s own guide to the Public Records Law states that settlement agreements are public records.

Yet it took six months for Wachtler to get a decision, which was in his favor. And what really irks him is that he couldn’t find out what was going on with his appeal during that six-month period.

“I made three calls to the supervisor’s office, but no one has ever called me back,” says Wachtler. “They really move at a glacial pace over there.”

At least Wachtler received a ruling. Boston criminal attorney Rosemary Scapicchio filed a public records appeal on November 22, 2010, after the State Police denied her request for certain criminal records. Amy Codagnone, an attorney in Scapicchio’s office, says the public records division never responded to the appeal, even to acknowledge its receipt, which was confirmed by postal records.

A compelling case with a delayed response time in­volved Slate reporter Emily Bazelon’s efforts to obtain a copy of the settlement agreement between the town of South Hadley and the parents of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old South Hadley High School freshman who hanged herself, a death widely linked in local and national media to bullying by a number of Phoebe’s fellow students.

Slate is an online daily news website owned by The Washington Post. Bazelon had written a series of 12 articles on the Prince case, including a three-part series, “What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?”

Last May, Bazelon filed a public records request with the town of South Hadley seeking a copy of the Prince settlement agreement. The very next day, town counsel Edward Ryan, Jr. denied Bazelon’s request, saying that the document was being withheld based on attorney/client privilege as well as a confidentiality provision in the settlement. He also said that no taxpayer funds were used to pay the Prince family, since the town’s insurer paid the settlement.

Last July, Bazelon filed an appeal with Williams, the head of Galvin’s public records division, arguing that a settlement agreement is not an attorney-client communication and there is no blanket exemption in the Public Records Law for confidential records. She also said the fact that the settlement was paid by the town’s insurer did not mean there was no financial impact on the town, since the insurer could respond by raising the town’s future premiums. (Subsequent documents revealed that the town indeed wound up paying a higher premium for its liability insurance—$10,255 more—as a result of the Prince settlement.)

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Last August, South Hadley provided Williams with a copy of the settlement agreement for his eyes only so he could make a determination as to whether the settlement agreement was a public record. Almost four months later, Williams still hadn’t reached a decision, so Bazelon convinced the American Civil Liberties Union of Massa­chu­setts to sue the town in court. Court suits involving public records denials are rare because they can be costly.

It took the court only three weeks to rule that South Hadley had to turn over to Bazelon the settlement agreement, which indicated the Prince family received $225,000 with no admission of wrongdoing by the town. Two weeks later, Williams closed the public records appeal after he was told by a reporter that a court had already ruled.