NEIL HARRINGTON IS THE POSTER BOY
When I started this journey to reform our state’s public records law five years ago I had no idea that the Town of Salisbury would feature so prominently in my motivations to add stiff penalties for officials who refuse to turn over public documents.
Yet, here we are.
IT STARTED WITH LANTIGUA
My journey began in 2010 when newly elected Lawrence Mayor Willie Lantigua took office and made it perfectly clear that he had an “enemies list”. City Attorney Charles Boddy admitted to the Boston Herald that before he could release public documents, he first had to check with Lantigua to make sure the requester was not on said “enemies list”.
Clearly, The Valley Patriot was at the top of that list.
First, Lantigua said (in writing), if I paid for the records I would get them.
But, after paying Lantigua, I was told the records were “protected work product” … even though the records we were seeking were public payments made to a local attorney doing business with the city.
After filing a lawsuit, and a few dozen court hearings later, (with Lantigua running up thousands in legal bills for the City of Lawrence), Lantigua released some records, but blacked out all the information.
Three superior court judges, including judges Cornetta and Murtagh, said in open court that there was nothing they could do compel Lantigua to comply with the law. “There’s simply no penalty in the law,” Judge Cornetta told us.
That’s when the journey really began.
A JOURNEY THROUGH SALISBURY, THIS COULD BE YOU
Our long escapade with Lawrence Mayor Willie Lantigua highlights why the public records law needs to penalize officials who brazenly violate it.
But, even with all that, there is no better poster boy for this legislation than Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington.
While The Valley Patriot was fighting battles with Lantigua in court, we were investigating other stories and submitting public records requests in other cities and towns, Salisbury being among them.
The issue in Salisbury surrounded two elderly ladies, Gracemarie and Joyce Tomaselli, who had lost their business because they didn’t pay a sewer betterment that they now claim was not their bill.
They filed appeals and lawsuits, and yelled from the highest mountaintops for anyone to hear, that the town never recorded the sewer betterment with the Registry of Deeds (before they bought the property) and that the bill they were sent belonged to a prior owner.
Their bill compounded and the town refused to let them pay their taxes without first paying the fake sewer betterment bill. In the end, the amount of money they owed the town had climbed near the value of their property and they lost everything.
But they lost everything, in part, because Neil Harrington and other town officials concealed public documents that the Tomaselli sisters needed in court to prove that Salisbury officials acted improperly, and the sewer bill that started all this was never their bill to begin with.
GET IT YET? This could be you! These poor people had to request documents from town officials, to prove to the court that those town officials acted illegally, and the town officials refused because there’s no penalty in the public law for those who violate it. BINGO! The town didn’t release the records and the Tomasellis lost in every single court.
A NEW SHERIFF
So, The Valley Patriot started submitting public records requests to Neil Harrington, who ignored our requests. But, unlike former Lawrence Mayor Willie Lantigua, Harrington is well liked, an insider, someone that other officials and the local media regard as a political asset.
This makes lawbreakers like Neil Harrington far more dangerous to the public good than someone like Willie Lantigua.
You see, it was much easier to marshal political forces (and the media) to pay attention to Lantigua’s misdeeds because nobody outside of Lawrence respected him. But, Harrington is politically powerful, he has backup, and he has a lot of political influence outside of Salisbury. That means it’s harder to get people to pay attention to his misdeeds.
HARRINGTON THE LAW BREAKER
I waited months for Harrington to comply with the state’s 10-day public records law. I called other public officials and asked if they could persuade him to act responsibly. Most of them raved about how “awesome” Harrington is, and “Neil’s a nice guy, he’s very helpful to me.”
Senator Ives, however, took the issue head on and scheduled a meeting with the three of us. At the end of that meeting (in June of last year) Harrington gave his word, (not only to me but the state senator), that The Valley Patriot would indeed get the documents by that Friday.
Friday came and went.
July came and went.
Sometime in September I reminded our state senator of a promise made in the town managers office and she was horrified to learn … surprise … I was still waiting. Eventually, after a few more calls from Senator Ives, Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington released the public records we were entitled to by law … it was a long ten days.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Up until now, all the public discussion on this issue has focused on how the state’s public records law hinders the press. But, it’s the average people like the Tomasellis … and you … who are far more affected by officials who willingly conceal public records, especially when you may need those records to show how corrupt those local officials are.
YES, IT COULD BE YOU!
Just imagine you try to get the property map from your local assessor to prove your neighbor built a fence on your property. You take your neighbor to court but because your local assessor refuses to release those documents, you lose in court and your property is suddenly the property of your neighbor … only to find out months later that your neighbor is the town assessor’s brother-in-law and was in on it all along.
We have laws for a reason, and we enforce those laws with penalties for a reason.
It shouldn’t be this hard, folks.
There’s a Neil Harrington in every city and town in Massachusetts.
Email your legislators and tell them to support S-1700, the Public Records Transparency Bill, or the next story I write about one of my readers losing their property … could be you!