Residents appealing heavily redacted response to public records inquiry into Town’s handling of allegations against former employee

by beth on November 13, 2020

An attorney representing Southborough residents is appealing an “excessively redacted” response to a public records request. The appeal is one of multiple attempts to discover more about how the Town handled allegations against an employee in Spring 2019. One unredacted document confirms that a former Town employee reimbursed the Town for alleged personal use of a Town credit card.

Communications between the Town and Ginny Kremer indicate the attorney is representing residents Jack and Louise Barron.* Kremer’s letter to the Public Records Division of the state claims:

In the spring of 2019, Southborough residents became aware that a town employee who worked in the Recreation Department had allegedly been stealing town funds. . .

The documents the town produced in response were almost entirely redacted, but they did establish that a Recreation Department employee left the Town’s employee in April or May 2019 and later remitted a personal check to the town in the approximate amount of $800. . .

The records did however establish that the police were called regarding the alleged theft. . .

The redactions however, made it impossible for Town residents to determine (1) how much money, in total was stolen or misappropriated; (2) whether the $800 that the former employee remitted to the town was a full reimbursement of the allegedly stolen funds; and (3) whether the employee was discharged for deliberate misconduct, or was simply asked to leave the towns employee with no further repercussions, leaving the employee eligible to complete claim unemployment benefits

In September, an attorney representing the Town issued the response to a request Kremer filed in August. The cover letter defended redactions as appropriate under exemptions to public records laws. Kremer counters those in her appeal. For the attorneys’ legal arguments, you can see their letters (and the redacted records) here.

In October, Board of Selectmen Chair Marty Healey publicly indicated that he was in favor of changing the Town’s policy to reduce redactions to public records request. (That didn’t appear to refer to this specific records response. Scroll down for more on that.)

The Town’s response to Kremer included one document without any redactions—a July 2019 audit report on the Southborough Recreation Department. Auditors state:

The accounting department of Southborough, Massachusetts discovered that a department credit card was being used by an employee for personal purposes. The employee paid funds back to the town and is no longer employed with the town. The incident brought about concerns over lack of proper internal controls, revolving specifically around the department. Our report outlines the relevant parties, the procedures taken, the findings we have noted, and our recommendations for implementing an improved internal control system.

The report included four categories of “findings” of concern. Issues related to lack of reconciliation of department records versus the town’s ledger, a gap in internal control over invoice approval, missing details on receipts for funds received, and handling of timesheets for hourly employees. Auditors made recommendations for resolving flagged issues going forward. 

Records of meeting agendas and redacted minutes from Spring 2019 indicate that the Board of Selectmen held closed Executive Sessions to discuss “the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges” against “a non-– union employee”. Redacted minutes from a closed Recreation Commission Meeting on a similar topic indicate that Commission members had not been allowed to attend meetings held on the topic with the Town Administrator or the Board of Selectmen. A joint meeting between Recreation and Selectmen was cancelled and never rescheduled.

Between redactions of Police and Town officials’ communications there are indications that a Southborough Police Detective was contacted in April 2019 about an incident. His notes include reference to someone’s consultation with a Worcester County Assistant District Attorney.

In September 2020, Kremer received the heavily redacted response to request submitted in August. The cover letter indicates that the request had included repeated requests for unredacted minutes from Executive Sessions:

The Town has already provided you with redacted copies of those records and/or explanations as to why those records are being withheld from disclosure. You have also unsuccessfully appealed to the Supervisor of Public Records (“SPR”) and the Attorney General (“AG”) the Town’s prior responses to your requests for those records.

At an October 6th Board of Selectmen meeting, Chair Marty Healey told fellow selectmen that he was “a little taken aback” by how heavily redacted a recent public records response was.

(That timing appears to be coincidental. He referred to a 3 page document in which 90-95% of the text was redacted. The packet received by Kremer was 55 pages.)

Healey noted that he believed that the response was “properly” redacted. What he wanted to discuss with Counsel and the board was taking a different approach in the future. Rather than redacting everything they are allowed to redact, he advocated turning over everything except what they are precluded from sharing.

The Chair opined that heavily redacting documents can create a perception that the Town has done something wrong when they haven’t, and end up in a fight over public records. Healey told the Board he would like to address the topic at a future meeting. There was no vote, but other members nodded, and none voiced objections.

Handling of Public Records requests with Attorney Tim Norris was scheduled for the October 20th BOS meeting. When the Board ran behind schedule that evening, Healey asked Town Administrator Mark Purple to notify Norris that he wanted to push the discussion to a future meeting. (The item isn’t on the Board’s next agenda for November 17th.)

*Kremer has also been representing the Barron’s in a lawsuit against the Town and the Board of Selectmen on a different matter.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lack of Proper Internal Controls November 16, 2020 at 9:19 AM

OPEN LETTER TO MR. HEALEY and BOS:
What the heck??
At least two of you actually ran for your seats on the premise of greater accountability and transparency. Mr. Healey: the town doesn’t want to give the appearance of doing something wrong through excessive redactions or the town did do something wrong? What about the “lack of internal controls” cited above?? That sounds wrong!! Then redactions?? Why?? What is this nonsense all about? This is a public matter involving public employees allegedly stealing public money? Since when does an alleged embezzler have more rights surpassing the rights of the taxpayers and a right to even know?? Remember the anti-corruption policies put before town meeting floor? This town mistakenly listened to the three unwise men squawking that the town didn’t need the good active policies of other towns. They said nothing is wrong. Well something is wrong!! Why do residents have to go to the expense of an attorney to uncover and fix what is wrong and your job? Enormous thanks to these residents and their attorney for this hard work to uncover this ridiculous mismanagement. Proper public discussion and policies please!

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2 Lack of Proper Internal Controls November 16, 2020 at 10:07 AM

BTW, what other town employees or contract workers have credit cards?? What other expenditures “lack proper internal controls?”

How about some straight forward answers? The taxpayers have a right to know the full details on the above mismanagement and alleged theft, as well as other exposed areas of risk. Where are proper policies and controls? Should there be better scrutiny of major town expenditures? Lack of internal controls?? Is this a joke??

As an aside, how much money are we spending on legal fees about redactions? This is absurd. There should be future controls over town attorney fee expenditures. Anything over $5k or some benchmark goes to the voters on town meeting floor!

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3 Why Redactions? November 16, 2020 at 7:52 PM

Agree with comment above! Either the redactions are unnecessary and only create the appearance that the town has something to hide…. OR the town really does have something to hide. In either case there should be no redactions. Who is being protected here?

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4 Local November 16, 2020 at 9:58 PM

You can go on the framingham city website and see any foia request that was not rejected. I have never seen a document redacted to this extent. Redaction rules are pretty strict and they err on the side of the requester. A police report that redacts everything except a few adjectives? Absurd.

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5 so much for open government November 17, 2020 at 9:38 AM

Related to the redaction strategy is the ever increasing number of “closed door sessions” that are being held by various Town committees and, most egregiously, the Board of Selectmen.

These groups are supposedly doing the business of the people – why all the secrecy?

Hey – Marty Healy – how’s that PILOT plan coming along with Fay and St. Marks schools? You refused to talk about it in the ATM, claiming a potential to spoil ongoing discussions – and that was many months ago! Another dead end?

Secrecy in Town government proceedings. It’s OUR town. Remember, you were elected. That same process can be used to determine your replacement!

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