(Part 2 of 2-part series on transparency issues in the Patrick administration)
But when it comes to getting public information from individual agencies within the administration, the record of transparency doesn’t always live up to the billing. We think our own recent experience with the Department of Developmental Services is a case in point.
We’ve been fighting with DDS for several years over public information requests, but the agency’s disinclination in recent months to provide requested information seems to have gotten worse.
It now takes months to get even the most minimal public records in response to our requests. And DDS recently cited the letter of the Public Records Law in claiming they have no obligation to answer any questions about records that they have provided to us. Also, in two cases in the past year, DDS cited confidentiality requirements in refusing to release what we think, in at least one of the cases, are clearly public documents.
Meanwhile, even a state lawmaker has been unable to get information out of DDS on deaths in the agency’s system. State Rep. Anne Gobi, a Democrat from Spencer, wrote to DDS Commissioner Elin Howe in mid-October, asking for information on the number of residents who had been transfered from the developmental centers to community-based group homes and how many of those residents had died after the transfers. As of this month, Gobi’s staff said she had not received any response to her inquiry.
Here are some more details about our efforts to get records and information from both DDS and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services:
- In October, COFAR submitted a request similar to Gobi’s to DDS for information and public records concerning the number of developmental center residents who have been transferred to group homes since 2008 and the number of those residents who have died.
In that request, COFAR also asked for the number of community-based group homes that have been built to house former developmental center residents. In early November, a DDS attorney responded that the agency was in the process of searching for the requested records. There has been no further word since then. We wrote to DDS on January 17, seeking an update on the status of our request, but have received no response to it.
- In October, the DDS general counsel denied a request COFAR had first made in July for records detailing the costs of medical, nursing, clinical, and therapeutic services for individuals in a group home program operated by the May Institute, Inc.
COFAR initially filed the request for the records concerning the May Institute with both DDS and EOHHS. In August, an EOHHS official responded that that agency was in the process of searching for the records. Then, in September, a DDS attorney stated that DDS was searching for the same documents.
There has been no further word from EOHHS since August regarding the records. In October, however, the DDS general counsel appeared to reverse the Department’s September position by stating that documents detailing funding for medical or clinical services for individuals would be part of their individual client records and therefore exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Law.
COFAR appealed the denial to the Supervisor of Public Records in October, suggesting that DDS redact any names or any other information that might identify individual clients. In the October appeal, COFAR maintained that it was seeking only to find out the total cost to taxpayers of care for community-based clients such as those in the May Institute program. Should DDS refuse to provide that information, “the public will have no way of knowing basic details about the provision and funding of these kinds of public services,” COFAR’s appeal added.
To date, the Public Records supervisor has not ruled on COFAR’s appeal.
DDS similarly denied a request in July from COFAR for information about the death of a man in a group home earlier that month, four days after he had been transferred there from the Templeton Center. In that case, the Public Records Supervisor upheld DDS’s denial, accepting the Department’s argument that the information was private.
- In July, COFAR asked DDS for detailed budgetary information regarding the Monson, Templeton, and Glavin developmental centers, which have been targeted by the administration for closure. In response, DDS in August provided only a single line item amount for each facility, representing the total spending for that facility. There was no budgetary breakdown of the line item for any of the facilities.
After COFAR appealed to the Public Records Supervisor, DDS, in late October, provided an “aggregated” spreadsheet containing numerous line items for all three developmental centers. However, this time there was no separate breakdown for each facility. Moreover, the total aggregated spending amounts for each of three fiscal years in the October response did not correspond with the totals provided in the August response.
As a result, COFAR sent an email to DDS asking why there was such a big difference, in particular, between the $176.3 million in total spending listed in the October spreadsheet for the three facilites in FY 2009, and the $57.8 million listed in the August response for the same three facilities.
In a letter sent to COFAR in response, a DDS assistant general counsel wrote that the agency “is not required to answer questions…” under the Public Records Law. So much for letting us, and the public, in on the inner workings of the state’s finances.
Earlier this month, an attorney with the Public Records Division, sent us a nice email, apologizing for the delay in responding to our October appeal regarding the May Institute documents, and saying:
I know that you are working very hard to help those in the Commonwealth who are the most in need, and that receiving records from custodian’s, like DDS, is a crucial part of assisting those individuals.
Now, if only DDS wouldn’t balk at simple requests for information, and showed a dedication to following through on the administration’s claims of transparency.