Helping The Public Get Public Records

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In Massachusetts, the law says state and local officials have to get the ball rolling on a public records request within 10 days. The process isn't always that quick, but many reporters eventually get what they're asking for.

But what happens when regular citizens want to peer into the innerworkings of a town hall or a state representative's office?

Last year, blogger Barry Rafkin of got curious about parking tickets in Somerville. He wanted to know which neighborhoods were generating the most ticket revenue for the city, and whether certain areas were getting targeted above others by meter readers.

In April 2009, Rafkin emailed a request to see a record of all the tickets issued in Somerville over the last few years — and didn't hear anything back.

"I was told that in order to produce the records I requested, the city would have to charge me very high fees to print out all of the parking ticket records and then go through a process redacting those records to get any personal information, and this would take thousands of dollars," Rafkin said.

What kind of personal information would need to be redacted? Just personal information like license plate numbers.

Rafkin figured those should be pretty easy to delete with a few strokes of the keys in a spreadsheet, and it turned out he was right. City officials in Somerville told him they were in the process of converting to a computerized system that would allow them to fill his request much more easily.

Rafkin said he was happy to wait for that, so he waited. And waited. A total of five months went by, during which Rafkin felt he was stonewalled at every turn.

Eventually, Rafkin called Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, whose stories run regularly in the Boston Globe and on WBUR.

Bergantino proceeded to file a similar request for parking ticket information with the City of Somerville. He had to have his own back-and-forth with the city, but within a few months he got what he asked for.

Somerville officials dispute Rafkin's account of events. They say his request was much more sweeping, and much more nebulous, than the request Joe Bergantino sent in.


We'll dive into the intricacies of requesting public information.


This segment aired on December 6, 2010.


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