Thursday, May 05, 2005

On this one, Schechtman is right

Cape Cod Times Editor in Chief Cliff Schechtman is no stranger to criticism, especially when it comes to his paper's coverage of the proposed offshore wind farm. Schechtman has also drawn a scornful reaction from some, such as blogger Peter Porcupine, for his successful lawsuit forcing Barnstable Sheriff James Cummings to release the names of reserve deputy sheriffs in the county.

But in this matter, Schechtman hasn't just won a legal battle, he's performed a public service. And anyone willing to put aside personalities and politics and consider the merits of the case has probably come to the same conclusion.

A brief history of the case --two years ago, a Yarmouth car dealer was charged with 10 counts of larceny and four counts of fraud. The car dealer was also a deputy sheriff on the Cape, which begged the question - who else is one? When The Times asked Cummings for the list, Cummings balked, saying the association of deputies was a private organization not subject to public disclosure laws.

But as the Supreme Judicial Court eventually pointed out, Cummings was appointing deputy sheriffs in his capacity as sheriff, not as a private citizen. This is just conjecture on my part, but I suspect that Cummings let his disdain for The Times get in the way of his better judgment. And while I'm not a lawyer, I don't think he was given the best legal advice. Surely a Supreme Judicial Court that advocates gay marriage can be expected to support transparency in public records.

One of the criticisms made by Peter Porcupine is that the list of 292 deputies, when eventually released, turned up nothing embarrassing or revelatory. But it is only by virtue of The Times' actions that anyone, Cummings aside, could have made any observation about the names on the list. Had the paper not forced the issue, the list would still be locked away.

For all anyone knew before the case was settled, every person on the list was a scofflaw - surely not the kind of people you want appointed by a sheriff. Or that the price of getting deputized by Cummings was a hefty contribution to his next campaign (The Times also reported that well over half the deputies had contributed money to Cummings). Getting deputized by the sheriff brings no authority to make arrests, but it does provide a badge that is identical though slightly smaller than the one carried by Cummings, according to the Times' coverage.

But as Schechtman has pointed out, how can any of us be sure the appearance of authority that comes with this pseudo-badge hasn't been abused - especially if the sheriff is unwilling to disclose who has been deputized? Count me among those opposed to the idea of people carrying badges without any authority to use them, especially after 9/11.

This is not to denigrate the fine charitable work of the deputies or that of Cummings in his other duties. But had I been deputized, my presumption would have been that this was somehow a matter of public record.

If you plan to request public records on the Cape, the lawsuit by The Times means you are more likely to get those records, and in a timely fashion, than if Cummings had prevailed in the case. I say this based on scores of requests I've made over the years, requests that were all too often stymied or dragged out by unwilling bureaucrats or records-keepers not acting in good faith. I've heard cops tell people they can't look at a police log - as public a record you'll ever find - because the names in the log are protected by privacy laws (they aren't). A Raynham police dispatcher once tried to charge me $5 for looking at accident reports. A fee can't be charged unless you call police and ask them to make a copy of a record and mail it to you.

It should make no difference who is making the request - the law sees no distinction, for example, between citizens and the media - but in reality, it makes all the difference. Human nature being what it is, a direct correlation exists between the sensitive content of public records and the length of time needed to obtain them.

Take down that dusty copy of "All the President's Men" for the best example of this.

Jack Coleman

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