nefaclogo1-15 The NEFAC Report
            New England's monthly right-to-know dispatch

October 2011

Prepared by the New England First Amendment Coalition in partnership with Northeastern University    
   The monthly NEFAC Report monitors print and online coverage of public access issues in the six-state region.  Visit our Website  for the NEFAC blog, media updates from around New England, guides to the states' right-to-know laws, legal contacts and more.
Secret deal gives school superintendent lucrative final year
   FOXBORO, Mass. - This school year will be Christopher Martes' last as Foxboro superintendent - but it will be a lucrative one for him.
   In a secret deal with a school committee pledged to openness, Martes retired last August and now runs Foxboro schools as a consultant superintendent with reduced work days while drawing a combined annual pension and town fee package of about $260,000 through June.
   Four school committee members denied this week that Martes has retired, saying he is merely "retirement eligible."
   But Martes confirmed he did, in fact, retire last August after working out an agreement with the committee to take $40,000 less in town compensation this school year, along with his full pension.  Read more 

- Frank Mortimer, The Sun Chronicle, Attleboro, Mass 

10/15/11

AG: water board wrong to close meeting on billing crisis
   BROCKTON, Mass. - Bob Ford was one of the first residents last year to challenge a massive water bill during an uproar that embroiled the city for months.
   So he was heartened to hear on Thursday the attorney general had found the Water Commission violated the state Open Meeting Law when the board met behind closed doors in August 2010 amid the water-billing crisis.
   That ruling, Ford said, "didn't really gain us anything as far as getting our (billing) issues with the city settled."
   "But I guess it's a moral victory," he said.  Read more

- Erik Potter, The Enterprise, Brockton, Mass.  

10/14/11

Mass. posts searchable database of open-meeting rulings
   BOSTON - State officials are hoping that a new, searchable database of rulings on alleged violations of the state's Open Meeting Law will make the law and how it works clearer to the public and help public officials avoid making the mistakes that their counterparts in other communities have made.
   Attorney General Martha Coakley's office has created a searchable database of all its rulings on investigations into Open Meeting Law violation complaints, including ones against public bodies in Weymouth, Cohasset and Brockton.
   The database includes dozens of rulings dating to July 1, 2010, when the attorney general's office took over enforcement of the law. Before that date, complaints were handled by the county district attorneys' offices.

- Christian Schiavone, The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.  

10/13/11

CT town puts its checkbook, employee salaries online 
   EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - The town has begun posting public employees' taxable wages online, in addition to their base pay, medical costs and the town's checkbook.
   The information was posted in response to repeated requests, town officials said.
   "We put it online because we believe in transparency," said Finance Director Michael Walsh.
   For residents with access to the Internet, the newly posted information is located on the finance department's page at the town website.   Read more 

- Melissa Traynor, Hartford Courant 

10/11/11

Easy access to online photos spawns "mugshot racket"   
   It used to be that mugshots were kept well out of the view. Despite being public records in many states, walls of bureaucracy and simple physical inaccessibility (due to the photos being locked in a police station somewhere) kept them largely out of the public eye.
   But the Internet has changed that. Now, those same photos are uploaded to the web on tens, maybe even hundreds, of police and sherriff websites, giving rise to two new online businesses: the mugshot aggregation website and its opposite number, the mugshot removal website. But as David Kravets wrote in Wired, the interaction of these two types of website is more complicated than it seems. And their dealings call into question the reluctancy of states to centralize public records online in the first place.
   Kravets explains that reputation companies, like RemoveSlander.com, are players in an emerging "mugshot racket" that feature websites with millions of photos and a convenient way to remove them: money.
Read more

- Justin Silverman, Citizen Media Law Project  

10/11/11

Councilmen file FOI complaint over school finances
   PLAINVILLE, Conn. - Efforts by two members of the town council to get financial information from the school system has led them to file a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission.
   The complaint was filed in August by Republican council members Scott Saunders and Lee Toffey and is pending before the commission.
   Saunders and Toffey did not respond to requests for comment about the complaint. They have filed three requests to the school system for financial documents this year, most recently in August. In their complaint, Saunders and Toffey said school officials told them they had to pay $112 for the 224 pages they requested in August. In the previous two requests, school officials did not require payment.
   After being told they had to pay for the copies, Saunders and Toffey complained to the state FOI commission.  Read more

- Ken Byron, Hartford Courant  

10/10/11

Emails show hospital tax breaks tied to pro-union labor deal
   WORCESTER, Mass - Mayor Joseph C. O'Brien, city councilors and the top aide to U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern jockeyed behind the scenes to tie a lucrative tax break for the new St. Vincent Hospital cancer center to a pro-union labor agreement, public records show.
   Critics say the public officials circumvented what should have been a public debate about the merits of a tax break, instead pressuring the hospital in private to accept a labor deal that would boost the cost of the partially taxpayer-subsidized project.
   Several dozen email messages obtained under a public records request by the Merit Construction Alliance, a trade group that lobbies for non-union construction firms, depict a flurry of activity last May after St. Vincent executives indicated they would move the $22 million downtown complex to the suburbs unless they got tax relief in the form of a tax-increment financing incentive.  

- Shaun Sutner, The Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.  

10/9/11

Winooski should be open on cop's drunk driving case   
   A Winooski law enforcement officer was convicted of breaking the law. The city needs to make the strongest public case to justify his continued employment as a police officer.
   Winooski's refusal to reveal if and how a city police officer convicted of driving drunk has been disciplined again shows a branch of Vermont government refusing to hold a law enforcement agency publicly accountable.
   City Manager Katherine Decarreau cites "personnel issue" as the reason for keeping disciplinary action - if any - taken by the city from the public. Winooski takes the secrecy a step further by refusing to reveal in what capacity the officer remains with the police force.  Read more

- The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press  

10/9/11

Newspaper wants video of bra removal trick made public
   ABINGTON, Mass. - An expert in public records law said a video of a former School Committee chairman performing a magic trick in which he appeared to tear the bra off a fellow committee member should be disclosed to the public.
   Jonathan Albano, a Boston attorney who specializes in public records law, said Friday that the argument used by school officials in not releasing the video does not apply to the situation.
   Responding to a written request from The Enterprise for a copy of the Sept. 27 School Committee meeting, Superintendent Peter Schafer cited a "privacy exemption" in state law in refusing to release the entire recording.
   Schafer said in an interview that Ellen Killian, who was part of the trick performed by former chairman Russell FitzGerald, was an innocent bystander and has a "right to be protected from public humiliation."

- Matt Stout, The Enterprise  

10/8/11

Public's right to know weighed in school property sale  
   FALMOUTH, Maine - Town officials are weighing the public's right to know against their desire to negotiate the best deal for the sale or lease of the former Plummer-Motz and Lunt school properties.
   The Town Council will meet Wednesday with the town's attorney, William Plouffe of Drummond Woodsum, to discuss whether proposals the town may receive for the school properties can be kept secret during negotiations.
   The town is seeking proposals, due Nov. 29, to buy, lease or redevelop the 20-acre school complex on Lunt Road, which was replaced by the new Falmouth Elementary School on Woodville Road.
   "It's a matter of giving the town the best advantage we can going into negotiations," said council Chairwoman Teresa Pierce. "There's a balance between making the work we do transparent to the public and maintaining the town's ability to negotiate, and there are valid reasons for both."   Read more

- Kelley Bouchard, The Portland (Maine) Press Herald  

10/8/11

State lifts oversight of MA county retirement board
   SALEM, Mass - The state has decided to take the training wheels off the formerly scandal-plagued Essex Regional Retirement Board.
   Joseph Connarton, executive director of the state's Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, wrote to the board's executive director, Charles Kostro, this week to announce that the commission is ending its special monitoring of the retirement board.
   The team of monitors - a lawyer, an auditor and an accountant - has been overseeing the board since a scathing audit of its operations was released in March 2010.
   "While there is still some work that needs to be done to put ERRS back in full conformity with PERAC standards, tremendous progress has been made, and ERRS has resolved many of its deficiencies under your leadership," Connarton wrote after a follow-up audit.   Read more

- Alan Burke, The Salem (Mass.) News 

10/7/11

Why is city shutting public out of arena lease discussion? 
   The South Burlington City Council is taking exactly the wrong tack by failing to take advantage of a public meeting to make public the issues that are behind a push to alter the lease on Cairns Arena.
   Stonewalling 150 people who showed up for a City Council meeting to get answers is the wrong way to run city government. The people of South Burlington deserve to be told by their elected representatives why the city is seeking to upend a long-standing agreement with the group managing the popular hockey and ice skating venue.
   Why is City Hall shutting out the public?  Read more

- The Burlington Free Press 

10/6/11

Completeness of Bethel's post-Irene records questioned

   BETHEL, Vt - In Bethel, some residents question whether minutes of recent select board meetings accurately reflect all that's happened since Tropical Storm Irene.
   Bethel's Town Clerk says the Town Manager is responsible for keeping the September minutes that have come under question. Bethel resident Laura Rubenis wants the town to revise those minutes.
    "The Select Board appears to be on the defensive."
   Rubenis was displaced by the storm, and she says the minutes of Bethel's meetings fail to mention drawn out, often heated debates about disaster response.
   "The discussions around these items took probably around two hours, maybe longer. It concerns me a great deal that it's not part of the official record. The governor wound up intervening in the whole process of setting up the emergency disaster center at the Town Hall. That puts the Select Board in a very uncomfortable position."  Read more, listen to report

- Nick Crapezza, Vermont Public Radio 

10/5/11

Trust in government hinges on transparency   

   The walls Beacon Hill has erected between itself and those it governs have taken on two dramatically different faces.
   Outside, they show decades of wear at the hands of those fighting for better access to their government. Inside, they're increasingly pocked with a taint that thrives in the absence of light.
   That taint, most recently seen in a disturbing chain of high-profile corruption cases, suggests that any benefits such barriers provide to the efficiency of lawmaking are grievously undermined by the efficiencies they also provide to those more interested in lawbreaking.
   The felony convictions of three successive Massachusetts House speakers - and a Probation Department scandal that threatens to reach into every corner of public service - clearly indicate state transparency laws are in dire need of improvement.   Read more

- Editorial backed by NEFAC and other advocacy groups

that ran in more than 20 New England newspapers  

10/2/11

Mass. AG pushes NOAA on abuses against fishermen  

   GLOUCESTER, MASS. - State Attorney General Martha Coakley has sent a de facto Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government for documents she believes will shed light on the administrative response at the Department of Commerce and NOAA to law enforcement abuses against fishermen.
   Coakley made a broad request for internal documents reflecting decisions made inside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration against disciplining law enforcement agents and litigators. whose improper actions over many years led to Cabinet-level apologies and reparations paid to 11 individuals and fishing businesses, including the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction. this past summer.  Read more

- Richard Gaines, Gloucester (Mass.) Times  

10/2/11

Town releases report on police department practices  

   ATKINSON, N.H. - The long-awaited independent review of the Atkinson Police Department was released yesterday.
   While some in town may have thought the report would be damaging either to police Chief Philip Consentino or selectmen, it's not particularly harsh in its review of the department.
   The document was released just two weeks after The Eagle-Tribune requested it under the Freedom of Information Act.
   The 20-page report, with 17 pages of appendices, includes 25 specific recommendations. Those recommendations range from reconsidering the use of a jail trustee to clean the police station to planning ahead for the eventual need for a new station.  Read more

- Jo-Anne MacKenzie, The Eagle-Tribune, Lawrence, Mass.  

9/30/11

VT keeps details secret on ouster of medical board head 

   The revelations in the wrongful dismissal suit by the former head of the Medical Practice Board again shows the state trying to withhold information with no compelling justification for keeping it secret.
   The information unsealed Sept. 19 by Chittenden Superior Court Judge Helen Toor led to revelations that the director of the Office of Vermont Health Access -- responsible for overseeing publicly funded health insurance programs -- worked 14 months without a Vermont medical license required for the job.
   The state had told the doctor, Michael Farber, he could begin working at the department before his Vermont medical license had been granted, a move that could have the state facing liability for the doctor's actions.

- The Burlington Free Press  

9/30/11

Law says board's meeting with lawyer not a meeting 

   When is a meeting not a meeting?
   Under New Hampshire's Right to Know Law a meeting is not a meeting when a public body - such as the Oyster River School Board - meets with its lawyers. When this happens the word "meets" does not mean a "meeting" took place.
   If you are among the many scratching their heads at this oxymoronish definition you are not alone.
   The fact that a public board or committee can meet with its lawyer and keep it all secret is a loophole that has plagued the state's Right to Know Law for years. And it now appears to be at the crux of a stalemate over a Right to Know lawsuit by Durham resident David Taylor against the Oyster River Cooperative School District board.  Read more

- Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H.  

9/29/11

Press kept out of RI biz leaders' breakfast with governor

   It would have been easy - easy like Sunday morning - for the Rhode Island Commodores to allow a Providence Journal reporter to cover Tuesday's fall breakfast with Governor Chafee at the Rhode Island Convention Center. Instead, the Commodores (a nonprofit group unaffiliated with Lionel Richie's funk/soul band) decided to keep the press out.
   The Commodores are a group of about 250 of the state's top business and civic leaders, so there is obvious public interest in what they and the governor say to each other. And you might assume that a group dedicated to enhancing the state's economic development and quality of life would want to share their ideas with a wider audience.
   But the group's "admiral," Colin P. Kane, told reporter Kate Bramson it was a "non-attributionable" event, and "flag secretary" David C. DePetrillo said, "It's a private event."
   I guess it was private. But didn't it dawn on the Commodores that they were meeting with the state's top public official in a building constructed with public money to discuss (presumably) how to improve our public sphere? Didn't these "ambassadors of goodwill" realize that shutting the doors doesn't convey goodwill?  Read more

- Edward Fitzpatrick, The Providence Journal  

9/29/11

Hess plant fined for failing to report chemicals used

   CRANSTON, R.I. - John R. Hess & Co., a chemical processing facility in Cranston, agreed to pay a fine of $23,400 to settle claims that it failed to appropriately report chemicals used on site in violation of federal right-to-know laws.
   According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency complaint, Hess processed more than the established thresholds of N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone, ethylene glycol, and other regulated chemicals, but did not report them during the required time period.
   Hess submitted the forms after the due dates, resulting in five violations of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.  Read more 

- Providence Business News  

9/23/11

Town trying to recoup $40k spent on FOI case  

   POMFRET, Conn- After fighting a 3-year lawsuit, the town is now trying to recoup $40,000 spent on the case.
   In January 2008, residents Ford Fay, Charles Boster and Paul Hennen attended two separate Planning and Zoning Commission meetings. At both meetings, they verbally requested copies of documents on the agenda to be discussed, and their requests were denied by the commission, according to court documents.
   Fay, Boster and Hennen filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission claiming the refusal violated the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.
   After the Freedom of Information Commission sided with Fay, Boster and Hennen in January 2009, the town filed suit against the state commission in Superior Court and won in November 2009. After an appeal by the commission, the Appellate Court of Connecticut upheld the decision of the Superior Court on Aug. 2.

- Robin Cassella, The Bulletin, Norwich, Conn. 

9/22/11

Panel looks at proposals to open Beacon Hill meetings    

    BOSTON - With former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi sentenced to prison on public corruption charges and two more public officials indicted on Monday on conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, a legislative committee today took another look at the state's open meeting and public records laws.
    Testifying on behalf of Rep. Thomas Stanley's bill to subject the Legislature to the state's open meeting law, Deborah Butler told members of the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee such a law might have cut down on the temptation for DiMasi to steer public contracts to a favored software company in exchange for kickbacks.
   "No open meeting law puts people in the crosshairs of temptation on Beacon Hill," Butler said, describing herself as an unaffiliated citizen and taxpayers.
   Butler shared with lawmakers a story about how her family's cat had dragged a dead bird into their house that went unnoticed until until it began to decay behind her son's desk. "Any unexamined place will get nasty..."   Read more

- Boston Herald  

9/20/11

Critics say effort to limit political signs is censorship    

   WOODBURY, Conn. - A thorny issue that had legs before the national election last November is still kicking as the municipal elections approach this fall-that of limitations on the display of political signs.
   At a Zoning Commission meeting Tuesday, the persistence of critics who are challenging the town's rules limiting the display of signs to 12 square feet in total apparently prompted a protocol change-one that immediately was labeled censorship.  Read more, view video

- Daniela Forte, Litchfield (Conn.) County Times 

9/16/11

AG says investigative info should be presumed closed

   The Vermont Attorney General's Office has come out as a full-blown opponent of government transparency, advocating for a system that would leave the release of any information in a police investigative file at the sole discretion of law enforcement.
   In a hearing Tuesday before the Vermont Supreme Court, Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell went further, arguing that the public should presume to have no access to any part of an investigative file unless police choose to release the information.
   Such a move would, in effect, place the police above Vermont's public records law and dangerously erode citizens' ability to exercise oversight of law enforcement activities.
   The case before the Supreme Court is Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan's request to seal files related to search warrants executed in the police's search for the Essex couple, William and Lorraine Currier, last seen on June 8. This started with a simple public records request made by the Burlington Free Press and escalated into a Supreme Court case.  Read more

- The Burlington Free Press  

9/14/11

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