The city’s public records access officer works in the office of the city solicitor. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City councillors who have been demanding access for months to notes of the city’s Covid-19 Expert Advisory Panel were told they could finally see them – thanks to a citizen’s public records request.

The signal of elected officials’ diminished power was given Sept. 14, as councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler followed up on a formal request for the notes made two and a half months earlier.

The notes had been turned over by the city’s Public Health Department and received by its public records access officer because “there was a public records request,” city solicitor Nancy Glowa said. “They either have been produced to the requester or will be shortly. And I’m sure we’d be more than happy to provide them to the council as well.”

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon, taken aback, asked for clarification.

Mallon got a response from Glowa, though not one that spoke to her concerns: “All I can say is that it has taken some time, and there have been some communication breakdowns to get the information requested. And we just recently have been compiling all of the information [from] the entire time that the committee has been working. So I don’t know yet, actually, whether the request has been responded to or will be shortly.”

Mallon repeated that she was confused why the council request drew no action but the public records request did.

“We’re going to try”

This time, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale answered. “We were working on the council request, and then we got this request. So now, we’re really putting the two together,” he said.

“We’re going to try to submit them both,” the city manager told the vice mayor.

A delay came in consulting with the public health department over what the elected councillors were allowed to see of the advice being received by city government, DePasquale said.

An earlier public records request brought pages that had been redacted to the point of uselessness.

Questions without responses

The advisory panel of scientists and city officials was announced in March to guide Cambridge’s response to the coronavirus. Councillors first had difficulty finding out who was on the panel, then began calling for insight into discussions that were repeatedly brought up by the city manager as justification for blocking councillors’ orders – sometimes even long after similar initiatives were in place nationwide. The experts were cited as suggesting confusing mask rules, and resisting making more socially distanced space on Memorial Drive and certain city streets by closing them to traffic. Instead, councillors were told that the experts advised giving streets one-way sidewalks, depending which side of the road people walked on.

There was finally a formal motion June 29 to get meeting notes shared with the council. The order called for each week of notes from the experts’ meetings to be shared with the council at its next weekly meeting, so each set of notes would be only a few days old. But it didn’t happen at either the July 27 summer meeting of the council or at the Sept. 14 meeting that ended its summer break.

The drawn-out process had echoes of a police discipline incident in May, when Glowa told councillors they weren’t allowed to know anything – even behind closed doors – about punishment for a superintendent who’d tweeted about a U.S. representative being “another liberal fucking jerk.” Personnel records are confidential and “within the purview of the city manager,” Glowa said.

Serving all city departments

The Law Department serves the city manager (who hires the city solicitor) and council equally by order of municipal law, along with other city departments, Glowa has told the council repeatedly.

But councillors are questioning if the relationship is a useful one. At the same Sept. 14 meeting, when it came to discussing whether to remove some traffic enforcement work from the police department, Sobrinho-Wheeler said the city solicitor was most useful when her department had a specific, focused proposal to work on. Otherwise, “I think we all on the council have been at the point where the solicitor weighs in on something and it’s not an answer that makes a lot of sense,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

The next week, during prolonged discussion and confusion around extending the city manager’s contract, councillor Dennis Carlone said he saw it as “another reason why the council needs their own attorney representing them.”

That would have been appropriate for contract negotiations, Glowa said. Yet, as the council’s attorney, she did not advise them of the fact, Glowa said, because the councillors didn’t ask.

Update on Oct. 7, 2020: The expert advisory panel documents are available here.

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