The Massachusetts Public Records Law guarantees us access to public documents. By law, such requests must be responded to within 10 days. However, a simple request that I made for any no-bid contracts entered into by the Town of Chelmsford is well into its fourth month.
The Town Manager, backed by the Board of Selectmen and the town’s law firm Kopelman & Paige, has stonewalled for months. The Massachusetts Public Records Law lacks teeth, so there is no penalty for their noncompliance except for public embarrassment at their unlawful behavior.
George Dixon, in a recent candidates debate, stated that the selectmen have never acted unlawfully. But they are certainly acting unlawfully at this very moment, refusing to identify documents that we, the taxpayers, have a right to examine and which are very important to understanding where our tax dollars are spent and who gets the money. I could cite other recent examples of unlawful behavior, but in this message we will stick to the public documents request.
Here’s a quick summary: in early December we issued a letter to Mr. Cohen requesting copies of no-bid contracts. The Town Manager’s secretary sent a reply stating that the town sometimes purchases goods and services off of a pre-approved state list of contractors, and asked if we were interested in those contracts. We replied, yes, of course. The Town Manager then issued a second response stating that there are no such contracts. This flies in the face of the prior message from his secretary. We issued a third request, and received a single contract, an extension of the ambulance service contract without the underlying contract, making the extension impossible to decipher.
We issued a fourth request and stated that we would have no choice but to utilize the courts if the Town Manager again refused to comply. After receiving no reply, we filed a complaint with the Court, and within hours the Town Manager and selectman Jon Kurland were on pseudo-news sites such as Patch, blogging insults and mischaracterizing the law. Jon Kurland, a lawyer who clearly knows better, stated that “Mr. Van Liew is seeking documents for illegal bids which don’t exist,” and therefore I was simply harassing our poor public officials. Paul Cohen was quoted stating he did not have time for such “nonsense.”
However, one cannot file such drivel in written statements to the court; therefore the town’s lawyers had to admit that there are several classes of documents that match our request, including insurance contracts, no-bid real estate purchase and sale agreements, inter-municipal agreements and others.
But they continued to maintain that there were no contracts involving contractors from the state bidders list.
Baffled as to how this could be – Paul Cohen has referred explicitly to such services in the past – we placed a request for all documents pertaining to such services. Surely it couldn’t be a lot if there were no contracts.
The response was that there are over 25,000 pages pertaining to such services and it would cost $17,000 to produce them for us. Let me emphasize that the requestor, by law, bears all costs for such requests. Nevertheless, certain proxies who regularly act as attack dogs for the Town Manager and BOS went to work blogging incorrectly that we were trying to cost the town $17,000.
Of course we don’t even need to see those 25,000 pages to know that there are obviously contracts in there. Under explicit definitions in state law, as well as business law and common sense, purchase orders and statements of work, any kind of written instructions are of course a contract.
So we asked town counsel in a letter, whether they were saying that there wasn’t a single contract in those 25,000 pages. The answer was, “Simply put, the Town has not entered into any written agreement or contract to purchase goods or services under the state bid list.”
That’s astounding. All instructions are verbal? No written contracts whatsoever? Talk about potential for mistakes! Talk about potential for abuse! Invoices come in and there’s no statement of work to compare them against? Incredible! As a businessman, I really want to see how this works!!!
So we asked approximately how much money is spent on these services each year. Here is the response we received: “There is no document that exists that indicates the dollar value of the goods and services purchased through unwritten contracts…The Public Records Law does not require public officials to perform calculations or create records in response to such questions.”
In other words, go fly a kite.
This is not transparent government. Despite the vigorous claims of the incumbents that they support transparency, they back the Town Manager’s intransigence 100%, calling him a superstar and a valuable asset in Town Hall.
Valuable to whom?
The town’s law firm is once again providing advice to our officials on how to flout the law, rather than how to abide by it – just as they did with the 9 North Road debacle. It’s one more reason that Kopelman & Paige need to be replaced as town counsel.
We will get this information eventually, but officials have successfully deferred our analysis for months and have imposed unnecessary legal costs upon us. Our top town officials have shown they could care less as long as it doesn’t cost them anything personally to stonewall – they’re using your tax dollars to represent themselves via town counsel.
When government officials flout the law, and refuse to uphold the law, and target individual citizens for harassment, there’s a choice to be made. One can acquiesce and rationalize that there’s hope that the officials will exhibit better intentions going forward, or one can fight for one’s civil rights thereby upholding the civil rights of everyone. Despite the animosity and derision of certain officials, we will continue to fight to uphold the law and everyone’s right to know how their government works (or doesn’t work).
Roland Van Liew