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Guest column: 'The city always acts in good faith' with Andrew Quemere
Worcester's real real bad at public records
Well hello hello, I’m back from a little venture into the wilds of New Hampshire and I have something a little different for you today and that’s a brand new voice in the Worcester Sucks extended universe!
The bulk of this post will be the writing of Andrew Quemere, a Massachusetts-based reporter with a keen eye on the state of public records access and law here in the commonwealth. As such, he’s been following the city’s lawsuit with the Telegram & Gazette over police misconduct with a close and critical eye. In the piece below, he gets into the city’s marked indifference and deliberate obstruction when it comes to the state’s public records law—in service of shrouding the police department from public accountability.
But before we get into that, I think you, my lovely readers, would be interested to know that the city has a different (related?) problem: hanging onto a chief diversity officer. Since creating the position, back in 2016, it’s been nonstop turmoil and turnover for some strange reason and hmmmmmmm, I wonder what it is! City Hall just can’t seem to hold onto the person in charge of making it less racist.
The local branch of the NAACP, led by Fred Taylor, let the city have it in no uncertain terms in a recent statement:
We are agitated and enraged that once again, our Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) in Worcester is leaving. Our community’s hopes are once again being frustrated, denied, and delayed until another time. Worcester’s Black and Brown communities invested in this process and position are now left wondering why these smart, intelligent, and dedicated women hired with glowing qualifications leaving after such a short time? We have gone backwards. With a population so diverse we now only have one person of color in the leadership of the administration and no Black women.
Lest we forget, the position was created back in 2016 after the Department of Justice listening sessions on race, which is something that let’s just say doesn’t happen when things are going well. The city’s first hire, Malika Carter, made it just a year or so, leaving in 2017. Carter, a person well qualified for the position and, importantly, coming from outside the political structures, loyalties and allegiances of City Hall, was replaced by a City Hall insider in Suja Chacko in 2018, but even she made it just two years. Stefanie Williams, our CDO who just left, was brought on after Chacko’s departure.
I share Taylor and the NAACP’s concern. As he writes:
This departure raises so many questions. Why did Ms. Williams leave? Did she feel unsupported? undervalued? ignored? marginalized? Are we serious about diversity and equity
in Worcester? Why is there such difficulty keeping someone in this position? Is the position a smoke screen? The city administration should do some genuine and humble self-assessment.
However, as this next piece is going to show, the city does not have a track record of genuine self assessment. They lost a multi-year, landmark public records lawsuit over access to police misconduct documents. A judge ripped apart their defense as attempting to mislead the court. They lost and they lost badly. And still, the city can barely be bothered to comment on the matter. I’ll let Andrew, a guy who knows a whole lot more about this case than I do, take it from here.
‘The city always acts in good faith’
By Andrew Quemere
You might have heard that a judge recently said the city of Worcester did a very bad thing. What the city did, according to the judge, is spend three years keeping police-misconduct records secret from the Telegram & Gazette, deliberately breaking the law and attempting to mislead the court in the process. And, as I recently learned, we will probably never know how much money the city pissed away doing so.
Brad Petrishen, a reporter for the T&G, requested internal affairs investigations related to some other very bad things that were allegedly done by city cops. The city said the T&G was not entitled to see these records. Worcester Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker said otherwise.
Kenton-Walker ruled on the merits of the T&G’s lawsuit last June. This January, she again ripped into the city, ordering it to pay $101,000 to cover the T&G’s legal fees plus $5,000 in punitive damages. It’s the first time a judge has issued punitive damages under a provision in the 2016 public records law.
According to Kenton-Walker, “the city merely cherry-picked certain language from [previous] cases, taking it out of context” to justify its legal arguments. She advised the city that it “may not misrepresent to the court what cases and other materials stand for,” which is probably something the city’s lawyers had already learned back in law school, although I’m not a lawyer so I can’t say for certain.
Wendy Quinn, the assistant city solicitor who defended Worcester in court, argued that the city was just looking out for taxpayers. Some of the cops were facing civil rights lawsuits, and we wouldn’t want there to be any negative publicity about them while that’s going on, now would we? “The civil rights cases in federal court are some of the highest potential liability cases the city faces, with exposure in the tens up to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Quinn told the judge.
Judge Kenton-Walker did not buy this argument — the narrow deliberative-process exemption the city relied on just doesn’t apply to the type of records in question. She also wasn’t impressed by the city’s claim that the conclusions of internal affairs investigations are private “personnel” information, on account of the fact that there’s a previous court decision that held the opposite and that decision is called Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corporation v. Chief of Police of Worcester because it involved the exact same newspaper suing the exact same city for refusing to release the exact same type of records.
So we know about the $106,000 the city owes; what we don’t know is how much it spent to cover its own costs. I sent the city a public records request asking for all records documenting costs and personnel time associated with the lawsuit, but all the city provided were copies of the judge’s rulings about the T&G’s legal fees and damages.
Even though the city’s stated concern was protecting taxpayers, it didn’t bother to track how much it cost them by waging its losing war against the lawsuit.
The city probably spent quite a bit of money on paper and ink—lawsuits tend to generate a lot of paperwork. For reference, the T&G’s lawyers said their photocopying costs were $1,600 and they had another $1,600 in other expenses.
But the biggest cost is probably the salary for Wendy Quinn, who made about $127,000 in 2020, according to city payroll data. Of course, the T&G lawsuit was not the only thing that she worked on during the last few years, so without some sort of accounting by the city, it’s impossible to say how much she was paid to play her game of keep away.
When the T&G’s lawyers asked Kenton-Walker to order the city to pay their legal fees, Quinn argued that the lawyers failed to keep sufficiently detailed records about how they spent their time. She said the lawyers used “block billing,” lumping tasks together instead of listing each one separately. “[I]t can be difficult to parse what hours were incurred for what specific task due to the attorneys’ practice of block billing,” she wrote.
Quinn, however, did not document the time she spent on her work at all, let alone with the level of granularity she expected from opposing counsel.
Another cost would be the salary of Janice Thompson, an assistant city solicitor who works in a different part of the city law department. Thompson helped write the responses to the T&G’s records requests and also testified in court for three days. She made about $83,000 in 2020. But again, we can’t say how much she was paid specifically to obstruct the T&G.
The other lingering mystery is who exactly came up with the idea to give the T&G such a hard time.
The city initially said it would comply with the records requests. But it reversed course after the T&G published two articles by Brad Petrishen describing what he was able to learn from court records about the incidents described in the internal affairs records.
Though the timing would suggest otherwise, Janice Thompson testified that the city’s change of heart had nothing to do with Petrishen’s articles. Thompson said the decision was made after she had a conversation “in passing” with someone from the branch of the city law department handling the pending civil rights lawsuits. She said she couldn’t remember who this lawyer was or “any specifics” about the conversation.
Was this lawyer Wendy Quinn? Reached by phone, Quinn said that the litigation side currently has only four lawyers; she could not remember how many there were in 2018. She did not respond to a subsequent email asking directly if she was the lawyer who spoke with Thompson.
Regardless of who gave the order, what input was offered by Michael Traynor, the city’s head lawyer? And how involved was City Manager Ed Augustus, Jr.?
Quinn wouldn’t answer any questions about the lawsuit even after I put them in writing at her request. Augustus and Traynor did not respond to my requests for comment at all. After the decision in January, Traynor and Augustus also declined interview requests from the T&G and “Augustus did not answer an emailed query as to whether the judge’s comments about the manner in which the city handled the case concerned him.”
None of them want to talk about the lawsuit—puzzling, as they’ve maintained they did nothing wrong. After Judge Kenton-Walker ruled against the city in June 2021, Quinn said both in a brief and at a hearing that the city acted in good faith and was only raising “novel” legal arguments rather than deliberately messing with the T&G.
You would think that since city leaders were just acting as virtuous stewards of the public’s tax dollars, they would be eager to explain themselves. But so far, all we have is a canned statement from Traynor: “The city always acts in good faith and we maintain our position that we did so in this case. However, the court has spoken and we will move on.”
The group Defund WPD offered its own statement:
As Worcester residents, we are left wondering what are the motivations and intentions of our city government choosing to withhold important information.
The city’s actions in this case, their ignoring community demands for a civilian review board, and their secrecy about American Rescue Plan (ARPA) spending make it very clear that promises of transparency and accountability are completely hollow.
We continue to support Worcester’s Black and Brown leaders in their ongoing call for the creation of a civilian review board, the prioritization of all ARPA funds to BIPOC and low-income communities, and the need for greater transparency in city government.
Even if the city’s behind-the-scenes machinations were put into writing, it’s unlikely we’ll ever read about them because of attorney-client privilege and attorney work-product privilege. I sent the city another public records request asking about these discussions because why the hell not—but I doubt we’ll ever know the full story.
I wrote a more detailed story about the lawsuit for DigBoston, which you can read here. Bill and I also talked about it for his podcast, which you can listen to here. If the whole public records thing interests you, then subscribe to my newsletter The Mass. Dump Dispatch. You can also follow me on Twitter @andrewqmr.
Ok, Bill again now. Like Andrew said in his tagline, we had a long, in-depth conversation about this stuff on my podcast, Worcester’s Good But Hurts, which you should check out if you haven’t! Here’s the Patreon page. And you should also check out all the great work he does at The Mass. Dump Dispatch as it relates to public records if that’s your thing!
And as always please consider a paid subscription. This time, the subscription is going toward paying Andrew what I paid him and also toward other freelancers in the future. Economics, baby!
Do you want to write for Worcester Sucks? Just drop me a line with a pitch. Billshaner91 at gmail. We’ll work on it and see if it’s a good fit for the newsletter!