Accountable Strategies blog

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Archive for November, 2009

The outcome of our public records saga

Posted by David Kassel on November 12, 2009

[Cross-posted from Blue Mass Group.  Disclosure:  Written on behalf of The Fernald League for the Retarded, Inc.

The Massachusetts Public Records Division in the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin has denied our appeal seeking records on the administration’s plans to renovate the Wrentham Developmental Center.

Let me explain why we think this denial is both a very poor decision by Galvin’s office and an indication that the Patrick administration’s efforts to close the Fernald Developmental Center may well be in disarray.

The Fernald Center is the nation’s oldest state-run facility for persons with mental retardation.  I’ve been helping the Fernald League, a family-supported, nonprofit organization, in its battle to prevent the  administration from closing the Center, sending most of its residents to Wrentham, at least temporarily, and ultimately privatizing its services.   The League contends that the administration has not taken a number of costs, such as the Wrentham renovations, into account in concluding the state will save money in closing Fernald.

In a letter to me dated November 3, Public Records Supervisor Alan Cote said the Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) can withhold the Wrentham records because they relate to a “policy decision” that has still not been finalized.

NOT BEEN FINALIZED?  I thought the Patrick administration had finalized its policy of closing Fernald and transferring most of its residents to the Wrentham facility.  That, in fact, was what Nick D’Alusio, the director at Wrentham, thought as well, when I called him on November 6.

D’Alusio told me that his understanding was that DCAM and the Department of Developmental Services were both on track to renovate two buildings at Wrentham and have them ready to accept as many as 60 Fernald residents by May.  But he acknowleged that the project still hasn’t gone out to bid.  The design is complete, he said.  But the bids were supposed to be solicited in September.  The cost of the renovations is reportedly $1.6 million.

As I noted in a previous post, I had filed a request with DCAM on July 9, seeking the feasibility study and a documented cost estimate for the Wrentham renovations.  Under the state’s public building construction bidding statutes and policies, those feasibility documents should be completed and approved before the design is done.

But after first writing to tell me I should make an appointment to come in and review the records, Peter Wilson, DCAM deputy general counsel, wrote to me on August 21, denying my request.  Wilson’s denial letter cited an exemption to the Public Records law relating to those ongoing policy deliberations.

The exemption, however, says that it does not apply to “resonably completed factual studies or reports.”  The same day I received Wilson’s denial letter, I also received a letter from DDS Commissioner Elin Howe, stating that bidding on the Wrentham project was scheduled for September, with a contract award scheduled for October.  If that was the case, any feasibility study on the project would have had to be completed by the time Wilson was denying my request.

The Public Records Divsion took more than two months to decide my appeal.  Yet, their attorney never talked to me about the case, never asked for Elin Howe’s letter, which I had offered to provide him, and never called D’Alusio or apparently anyone else to verify DCAM’s exemption claim.  The Public Records attorney also apparently never asked DCAM for a copy of the feasibility study for the renovations to decide for himself whether it was reasonably complete. 

In his letter to me on Tuesday, Public Records Supervisor Cote stated that Wilson had stated in an October 30 email to his office that there were “ongoing discussions…as to whether ‘the building [slated for renovations at Wrentham] can be used’ for the contemplated purpose.”

“That’s totally new to me,” D’Alusio said, when I read him the passage above from Cote’s letter.  “I have no information that there are still discussions over the use of the buildings.”

So, here we are.  It’s already November, with seven months to go until DDS’s announced June deadline of closing Fernald, and six months to go until its announced deadline for having Wrentham ready to receive some 60 Fernald residents.  A design for the renovations is complete; yet, DDS and DCAM have apparently not even decided that the buildings in question at Wrentham can even be used for “the contemplated purpose.”

Meanwhile, DDS is laying off staff at Fernald and letting conditions deteriorate there — a situation which is putting pressure on remaining family members and guardians of the residents to get them out quickly.  No wonder those folks aren’t getting much sleep at night these days.

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