Sunshine in Somerville: A Look at Our Public Records

public recordsIllustrations by Carlos Montilla.

Every year, journalists, activists and vigilant citizens get together for Sunshine Week, a celebration of government transparency through public records and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In light of the occasion, we’re taking a look back at some of the Somerville-related documents that were made public by MuckRock, an open government news organization that helps people complete public records request. Here are some highlights from the last few years.

1. The Somerville Files

In 2012 and 2013, Chris Faraone of the alt weekly DigBoston and Scout alums Tom Nash and Adam Vaccaro took a look at campaign finance reports, zoning applications and city contracts. What they found was shady, to say the least, and puts a new perspective on the development of the city. They found, for example, that Design Consultants, a local engineering firm, had donated heavily to Mayor Curtatone’s campaign. The mayor denies any pay-to-play preferential treatment, but the reporters found that the Design Consultants were awarded $1.5 million in city contracts between 2011 and 2013. The four part series is sprawling and touches on everything form the Beacon Street cycle track to development at Assembly Square.

2. Public records as advocacy

Eileen Feldman is a disability civil rights activist who has used public records requests to examine the city’s compliance to street accessibility standards. Having heard the city tout its allegedly successful effort to clean up the streets to make them safer and more accessible, Feldman requested a list of streetscape accomplishments from Public Works. With the information she received—a spreadsheet of street reconstruction projects completed from 2004-2008—she was able to check the city’s work. What she found was that less than 20 percent of the newly replaced curb cuts met minimal state and federal standards.

Using this information, Feldman’s organization, Community Access Project, was able to submit over 100 state architectural access board complaints. As she told MuckRock in 2013, “That simple FOIA captured enough information for CAPS to demonstrate waste of public resources, important public safety issues impacting families, patterns of absurdly illogical use of public funds and also highlighted issues of importance to all stakeholders within a major commercial square.”

3. The cute stuff

Photo by Paul Moody/Flickr.

Photo by Paul Moody/Flickr.

Don’t worry: Public record isn’t all doom, gloom and possible corruption. In 2010, MuckRock cofounder Michael Morisy filed a request for the names of Somerville’s dogs. We now know that the most popular dog name in Somerville in 2010 was Bella, with 17 pups strolling around town with that name. And the ‘Ville’s most common breed at the time? Labrador.

It’s been five long years, though, since MuckRock unearthed these records—40 years in Labrador time—so I think it’s about time for an update. Stay tuned!