On June 3, 2016, Governor Baker signed An Act to Improve Public Records into law. This act requires municipalities to designate 1 or more Records Access Officers (RAO), who shall be responsible for:
- Coordinating the Town’s response to requests for access to public records;
- Assisting individuals seeking public records in identifying the records requested;
- Assisting the custodian of records in preserving public records; and
- Preparing guidelines that enable requestors to make informed requests
To become compliant with this law, at its December 12, 2016 regular meeting, the Wellesley Board of Selectmen appointed the following individuals as Wellesley RAOs:
Kathleen Nagle, Town Clerk, 525 Washington St., 781-431-1019 x2250
Meghan Jop, Assistant Executive Director, 525 Washington St., 781-431-1019 x2205
Lt. Marie Cleary, WPD Support Services Commander, 485 Washington St., 781-235-1212
Judith Belliveau, WPS Asst Supt. for Finance and Ops., 40 Kingsbury St., 781-446-6210 x5611
We wondered what this improved access meant for seekers of information, so we poked around a little. According to the State of Massachusetts public records, which we were able to access with a few keystrokes at no cost, “..if a response to a public records request requires more than 4 hours of employee time, an agency RAO may assess a fee of the hourly rate of the lowest paid employee with the skills necessary to search for, compile, segregate, redact or reproduce a requested record. However, the fee shall not exceed $25 an hour.”
Next, we went to a local source of information to sort all of this out: Town employees, who calmed us saying that this hourly rate will be unlikely to kick in here in Wellesley given that, historically, the records requested have been easy obtainable by employees.
I asked Town Clerk Kathleen Nagle if she envisions many changes at Town Hall as a result of the Act, and she said that the changes are really more of a formality for Wellesley, made to bring the Town into compliance with the law. She said that “Unless the public suddenly wants more or different information we expect it to be of little impact,” nor does she expect there to be an increase in work. RAOs will not receive additional pay for their new designation.
According to Assistant Executive Director Meghan Jop, four RAOs were selected because “…the Selectmen determined that in addition to the Town Clerk, those departments (schools and police) that receive the most requests should have independent officers.”
Nagle says that because schools and police have more requests and are custodians of their own documents, it made sense for those two departments to each have their own RAO. “Meghan and I will work together to assist other departments to respond to requests. We will make adjustments as needed once we have some experience with the law,” Nagle said.
The most commonly requested public records requests Town Hall receives are for emails, maps, historic minutes, Historic board decisions, actions, legal documents and references, and town financial statements (statements, budgets, ratings). Vitals such as birth/death/marriage information are handled so routinely that it is simply part of the daily operation at Town Hall, to the tune of 300 – 400 requests per year. Those records may be requested from the Town Clerk. (An interesting side note about that: requests for any vitals prior to 1881, the year Wellesley separated from Needham to become its own town, must go through the Needham Town Clerk’s office.)
In addition, the Town receives typically 5-10 requests per year outside of regularly posted information. This past year the Town has received approximately 16 requests that went directly to various departments.
Jop notes that “on the Town website there is now a “public records” link on the left hand side of the page. This link should be used to send digital requests for public records. This link will also be updated if the Town begins to receive multiple requests for the same information – that information will be posted at that location. Our goal is to improve service to the residents, and the IT Department is currently working on a new website design that will be activated in July. The new website will be more customer friendly and will bring the Town’s more used links and websites to the front of the page for easy access.”
For all other requests, send an email to [email protected], and an RAO will be happy to assist you.