Exposing Dark Money at Town Meeting

Efforts are underway to close the loophole exempting Town Meeting political activity from the Commonwealth’s financial disclosure laws

“‘Enough is enough  …. We’re seeing an unprecedented level of off-Cape and off-Island interests trying to sway voters one way or another most of the time for either an interest group or a set of individual peoples personal and financial gain … ”

— State Sen. Julian Cyr

Massachusetts State Senator, Cape & Islands

What is the Town Meeting loophole?

Massachusetts’ campaign finance laws turn 50 this November – and two state elected officials from Cape Cod want to close a surprising loophole that left political activity at Town Meetings out of the financial disclosure requirements. Triggered in part by the surge in PAC-style funding driving warrant article lobbying, State Sen. Julian Cyr from Truro and State Rep. Dylan Fernandes from Falmouth have filed a bill to close the loophole and make Town Meeting political activity subject to the same reporting requirement as other political activity.

What is Dark Money?

Dark Money refers to .political and campaign spending whose source can’t be identified. It aligns closely with the practice of political action committees and similar organizations using a shell name to lobby for a particular outcome. For example, a group of fossil fuel advocates might fight against rebate funds for alternative fuels under the name  “Citizens for Equal Transportation Rights.” Without campaign finance disclosure laws, voters won’t know that viewpoints expressed actually represent the fossil fuel industry which has a vested interest in the outcome as they listen to the arguments.

What will the proposed bill do?

The bill proposed by State Sen. Julian Cyr and State Re. Dylan Fernandes will simply make Town Meeting political activity subject to the same financial disclosure requirements that other political activity must follow.

Why is there a Town Meeting loophole?

Cyr says that lawmakers created what has become  Chapter 55 of the Massachusetts General Laws 50 years ago, they didn’t anticipate the type of political activity now seen at local Town Meeting and didn’t address it in the legislation.  However, the past few years have seen a rise in this type of activity, along with undisclosed funding for lobbying for or against Town Meeting articles.

For more information:

The Wired, Wired West: The Collapse of Public Internet in Easthampton and the Struggle to Connect Massachusetts’s Overlooked Communities

When Easthampton voters cast their ballots in 2019, there was only one contested race for city office.

But it wasn’t any of those unopposed candidates for mayor, City Council or School Committee that received the most total votes in the election. Instead, it was a ballot question asking voters to establish “a city-owned company that can provide utilities services including telecommunications systems and internet to households.” Of the 4,195 residents who voted in the election, 79% agreed they wanted Easthampton to create a municipally owned utility, which officials had begun exploring to bring city-owned broadband internet to town.

But after some five years of work toward establishing a municipal network of faster fiber optic cables to deliver broadband — including the passage of the ballot initiative, a detailed feasibility study and $150,742 in taxpayer money spent on design work for the project — Easthampton’s path toward a public utility came to an abrupt end earlier this year.

City residents are still getting fiber internet. But instead of a publicly owned utility rendering that service, a private equity-owned company called GoNetSpeed will be providing it. On May 25, the mayor’s office and GoNetSpeed announced a “partnership” to install fiber optic cables, which use light signals to transfer information more quickly and reliably than other platforms, across the city. GoNetSpeed said that it was fully funding the $3.6 million it would take to build the network citywide and may begin service as early as the start of 2024.

For some, the arrival of GoNetSpeed was a long-awaited development in a city where telecom giant Charter Communications is the only internet service provider. An advisory committee concluded in 2021 that there was “general dissatisfaction” in Easthampton with the quality and price of current internet services — issues that GoNetSpeed has promised to improve with its fiber optic cables and by providing competition to Charter.

“Through this partnership, we are able to ensure that internet connectivity is broadly available in a time when it is a necessity for our daily lives,” Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said in that May announcement.

But for others who dreamed that a city-owned broadband utility would serve residents better than a for-profit company, the mayor’s decision to work with GoNetSpeed represents a “missed opportunity.” Several of those involved in the campaign for a public internet network in Easthampton expressed disappointment in the development, pointing to cheap and reliable municipal broadband services in neighboring communities like Westfield, South Hadley and Leverett as examples of what the city could have had.

Paul St. Pierre chaired the Easthampton Telecommunications Advisory Committee, which between 2019 and 2021 studied broadband infrastructure, market conditions in the region and what the city could do to ensure affordable and effective internet service for all. The group’s report recommended the city move forward with municipal broadband, concluding Easthampton could do so without raising property taxes.

As many as 7% of Americans don’t have adequate broadband service, according to federal estimates. In Massachusetts, census data show that 10% of the state doesn’t have access to a broadband subscription, a “digital divide” that exists in both rural and urban communities and separates those who have access to affordable, high-speed internet and those who don’t. In the Connecticut River Valley, the divide is even more pronounced; data that the state-run Massachusetts Broadband Institute recently presented at a listening session show that 28% of the 281,000 households in the region have no broadband internet subscriptions and 52% of municipalities have “little to no competition in the broadband market.”

In Easthampton, the Telecommunications Advisory Committee looked toward public ownership of city broadband as a way to address those inequities in their own community.

“It was about creating a municipal utility and kind of viewing internet service as a utility and no longer a luxury,” St. Pierre told The Shoestring. “Seeing that the private company is coming in, in a way it kind of validates what we were saying: that this is an economically feasible thing that we could have done.”


Nearly eight years ago, ambitious plans were moving forward to bring publicly owned broadband to some of the least-connected municipalities of western Massachusetts. But then, the project came to a screeching halt.

At the time, 40 rural towns were preparing to build out their own fiber optic network as a regionally owned cooperative, WiredWest. Then the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, under newly elected Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, suddenly pulled support from the project in favor of partnering with for-profit companies. The initiative “crashed and burned,” Berkshire Eagle investigative reporter Larry Parnass wrote in 2017, over MBI’s concerns with WiredWest’s business model — worries that the cooperative’s backers said were overstated. WiredWest still exists, but now provides services to only six member towns.

The demise of WiredWest’s initial plans, however, was far from the end of public broadband initiatives in the region, some of which have flourished in the time since. For example, western Massachusetts communities with established municipal electric utilities — known as municipal light plants — have built out their own fiber networks in recent years and worked with other municipalities to help them do the same.

Leading that charge in Hampden County is Westfield Gas & Electric’s municipal internet service Whip City Fiber, which serves some 20 municipalities across the region, from West Springfield to Wendell and including the remaining WiredWest towns.

In Hampshire County, the South Hadley Electric Light Department, or SHELD, has steadily built out its fiber network to 95% of the town and has helped both Shutesbury and Leverett build their own networks. SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald told The Shoestring that although a municipal utility has to make a certain degree of revenue, it doesn’t have to operate with profits in mind like an investor-backed company. That means that public utilities’ rates tend to be lower and more stable, and their customer support more responsive, he said.

“There’s really kind of a renaissance going on with internet service providers in the United States,” Fitzgerald said. “In our region, what you’re seeing is a lot of towns, dozens of them, voting to become their own municipal light plant … The reason that’s happening is that the larger corporations aren’t investing in fiber optics in western Massachusetts.”

That is particularly true in rural communities where smaller populations are spread out across a wider geographic area, making private companies hesitant to invest because of the high costs of installation and lower customer base to recoup those costs.

Some rural communities elsewhere in New England have decided to band together to build broadband infrastructure. In Vermont, for example, 213 municipalities — representing 76% of the state’s population — had joined a “communications union district” that can issue revenue bonds to finance broadband networks as of November 2022. Maine has also witnessed the creation of two regional broadband utility districts, and last year state lawmakers there passed a bill that supports municipal broadband infrastructure.

Other municipalities in Massachusetts have considered a hybrid approach through public-private partnerships.

Last month, Northampton released a market and feasibility study of municipal broadband that it hired the firm Design Nine to conduct. (In 2021, Northampton residents voted 91.3% in favor of creating a municipal light plant.) That report suggested the city could play a key role in providing broadband infrastructure by, for example, building the fiber network and leasing it out or partnering with a private internet service provider by financing the buildout in return for guarantees the company would service all neighborhoods. The report recommended that the city not become its own internet service provider.

Elsewhere in the state, a group of 26 towns — mostly in eastern Massachusetts but including East Longmeadow, Hampden and Wilbraham — formed the Massachusetts Broadband Coalition, which has been exploring similar public-private partnerships, according to reporting from the community development-focused national nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Sean Gonsalves, the associate director for communications at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, told The Shoestring that efforts to build public internet infrastructure picked up momentum when the pandemic began in 2020. Many people started attending school and working from home, and some communities realized that they should be treating the internet as a fundamental municipal service, he said.

“You’re looking at it as civil infrastructure much like roads and water systems, and when a municipality bonds to build these networks … you don’t need to make a lot of money and you have a longer time to pay off those bonds,” Gonsalves said.

As part of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021, the federal government is now pouring $42 billion into high-speed internet infrastructure, including $147 million in Massachusetts. Later this year, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute is expected to release a plan for spending that money, which must be used first to bring broadband to entirely unserved, largely rural communities. Only after that are states allowed to spend money on communities designated as “underserved” based on the availability of higher-speed internet — money that Gonsalves said could be used to connect, for example, low-income apartment buildings.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has been on an “Internet for All” listening tour of the state as it puts together that plan for spending those dollars. It remains to be seen whether the bulk of those Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment funds, as they’re known, will go to fostering publicly owned operations or private companies in Massachusetts.

Given the parameters of the program, though, BEAD money is less likely to arrive in municipalities like Easthampton and Northampton, leaving those communities looking for other ways to bring fiber to homes.

In a municipal broadband community meeting last month introducing the Northampton report, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra told those gathered that federal and state lawmakers have said Northampton likely would not qualify for BEAD funds. Design Nine consultant Andrew Cohill said that those challenges Northampton is facing mirror those of many other municipalities.

“It’s really unfortunate the way, particularly the federal funding, has been exclusively for unserved and in some cases underserved areas,” Cohill said. “There’s a lot of municipalities in the country that do not have adequate high-speed broadband and that is also affordable. And so the financing is a big challenge.”


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools and businesses shuttered their doors. For Easthampton resident Jason Miranda, that meant he and his family had two parents working and two children learning at home, straining their internet connection to the brink. Others had it even worse, he said.

“People who didn’t have access to a reliable internet connection were having to go sit in their cars and sit in the parking lot of the schools to do their homework,” said Miranda, who also sat on the Easthampton Telecommunications Advisory Committee.

Miranda said that he tends to favor public ownership and control of vital services, and that the committee found that many other city residents were excited about that prospect when it came to municipal broadband. The project could have started in one neighborhood, using the revenues from that to expand the network out to cover the whole city.

As Easthampton began down the path of exploring municipal broadband, the city initially contracted with SHELD, South Hadley’s public utility, to build out its broadband network. But after SHELD finished the first phase of that work conducting a utility-pole survey and drawing up a complete city-wide design for the project, LaChapelle decided to move in a different direction.

This summer, shortly after GoNetSpeed and the mayor’s office announced that the company was coming to town, the City Council signed off on paying SHELD $150,742 out of the city’s reserve account for the work SHELD did instead of going to court over the breaking of the contract.

GoNetSpeed is a conglomeration of small, previously independent telephone companies scattered across the country, including in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Originally known as OTELCO, the company was publicly traded until 2021, when the private equity firm Oak Hill Capital bought the company and took it private.

In municipalities big and small alike, GoNetSpeed is pouring millions of dollars into fiber investments in Connecticut, Maine, New York and western Massachusetts, where Amherst was the first town GoNetSpeed connected to its network in July.

“GoNetspeed is working to ensure that more communities throughout Massachusetts will soon have access to a high-speed 100% fiber internet infrastructure,” the company’s press release said at the time. “In the coming months, more communities throughout the state will join Amherst in having access to GoNetspeed’s fiber internet.”

Jamie Hoare, GoNetspeed’s chief legal counsel, told The Shoestring that while he believes there are places where a “municipal solution” is appropriate to building fiber networks, private companies can save taxpayers money because cities and towns won’t have to bond to build that infrastructure.

“I think an easier way to approach the issue, where available, is to allow private providers to build their networks and to remove the barriers that exist for that,” he said.

To that end, the company is backing legislation that would speed up the process for granting applicants like GoNetSpeed and others access to utility poles. That process is currently overseen by the companies that own the pole network, and Hoare said that makes it costly and sluggish for possible competitors to obtain the efficient access they’re entitled to on those poles. Hoare said the “intransigence” of those companies is standing in GoNetSpeed’s way, not competition from municipally run networks.

(In other states, telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast have lobbied for bills that restrict or outright ban municipalities from establishing public broadband networks. The organization BroadbandNow has identified 16 states that still have those kinds of laws on the books.)

GoNetSpeed has said that in a region where a large majority of residents only have one internet service provider to choose from, the company’s arrival in Easthampton will create competition and drive down prices.

“The profit motive is what drives us to keep our prices down to attract as many customers as we can because we understand that customers do have choices in this area and, yes, what we provide is the best service,” he said.

LaChapelle said that it was ultimately her who, after crunching numbers and looking at timelines, decided to welcome GoNetSpeed instead of possibly taking on debt to support municipal internet. She said that the city has a lot of projects in the works and that she had to choose what to spend public dollars on. GoNetSpeed said it would connect the entire city to its network, and that it wouldn’t cost the city anything, so LaChapelle signed an agreement with the company.

“I really wanted to see broadband across the city and I didn’t want to have to do it in chunks,” she said. “And I didn’t want to have to commit the city to having to bond while this [municipal light plant] was getting up and running.”

Some of those who worked on bringing municipal broadband to Easthampton, however, have questioned whether a private company will benefit customers in the long term or keep its promises to build out the entire city.

“On the one hand it’s good that we have competition now, we have more than one offering,” Miranda said. “But that said, it remains to be seen the quality of the service and what kind of price they’re going to come in at and what those prices are going to look like year over year. I certainly don’t think it’s as competitive as a municipal service could have been. Or as responsible.”

In its “joint working initiative agreement” with Easthampton, which The Shoestring obtained through a public records request, GoNetSpeed agreed to “building and deploying a fiber network city-wide to homes and businesses, without installation fees for residential customers, as soon as possible.” That, however, is “subject to supply chain and/or state agency and other third parties.”

“Sure, what a corporation puts into a letter, it’s not scripture,” LaChapelle conceded. “But they’ve made good on their promises so far.”

As part of the agreement, the company will also support the city’s efforts to educate residents about the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides up to a $30 monthly discount on internet service for households at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines. (On Tuesday, LaChapelle’s office also announced that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute had selected Easthampton to be in the first cohort of communities it will help develop a “digital equity plan” that will “outline a path for closing the digital divide.” The city and its consultants will hold a listening session of their own on Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. at Mountain View School.)

Gonsalves, the broadband expert at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said that he isn’t familiar with the specifics of Easthampton’s situation. But speaking generally, he said that private-public partnerships work best when communities are investing capital into the project too, allowing them a real seat at the table. When a municipality just plays “a support role,” he said it is very difficult, if not impossible, to have any say.

“Generally speaking, the more skin in the game that a community has, the more say they have in terms of the outcome: timeline, affordability, reliability standards,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that can be part of a private-public partnership and can be negotiated.”

Others have expressed concern about the possibility that GoNetSpeed gets gobbled up by a bigger competitor at some point in the future.

Private equity firms invest large pools of money — from wealthy people or endowments, for example. Often, a strategy they use to make handsome returns on those investments is by buying companies, restructuring them and selling them at a higher price.

Before Oak Hill Capital bought OTELCO in 2021, the company was publicly traded and, for that reason, had to make regular disclosures to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In one filing OTELCO made to the SEC in 2019, the company pointed to Oak Hill Capital’s role in gobbling up the competition in New England.

“Consolidation in the telecom sector over the past few years has significantly shrunk the universe of Otelco’s competitors, especially in the Northeast, with the completed acquisitions of Firstlight, Oxford Networks and Sovernet by Oak Hill Capital,” the report said.

The report said that one of OTELCO’s “operational objectives” was the expansion of its fiber network, increasing revenue per customer and making the company “more attractive for targeted acquisition.”

That’s exactly what happened in 2021, when Oak Hill Capital bought the company and took it private. Now, some have expressed worries that one of the telecom giants will purchase GoNetSpeed after it builds out more of its fiber networks.

“There’s no control in the long term,” Miranda said. “It does concern me, especially since private equity is involved and when they can’t get their money back they break it up and sell the parts or it just goes away.”

Hoare, the GoNetSpeed lawyer, said that it doesn’t seem like Oak Hill Capital has plans to seek a buyer and that the company plans to stay in the region.

“It’s difficult to think about what does the future hold, but we’re not looking to join up with other companies in the area,” he said.


A thin blanket of fog lay draped across Easthampton last Thursday morning as workers in reflective, neon coats moved down South Street in bucket trucks. At one end of the street sat a large spool of thick fiber-optic cables, spinning slowly as workers let out the line and hung it from one utility pole to the next.

When St. Pierre learned that Easthampton had jettisoned plans for municipal fiber and that GoNetSpeed was beginning work in the city, he said it was bittersweet. The city probably could have done it better, he said, but GoNetSpeed’s arrival will mean more competition.

“I hope they’re able to deliver a quality service that would serve the people of Easthampton effectively,” St. Pierre said. And while he’s not familiar with GoNetSpeed, he said the bar is low for them. “It would be hard for them to do worse than Charter. They’d have to really try.”

Others involved with the Easthampton Telecommunications Advisory Committee described the development as a disappointment. Miranda said that when the committee handed in their report, he never heard about it again from city officials.

“We never got a follow-up, we never got invited to the City Council meeting when they discussed it,” Miranda said. It was the first time he got involved in a city committee, and he said the lack of communication has made him leery about participating in something like that again. “I think our job was done, but at the same time, it’s sort of like all the work we had done just went into a black hole.”

LaChapelle said that she isn’t under any illusions that GoNetSpeed is “the friendliest corporation in the world;” they’re not, she said. The company didn’t need Easthampton’s permission to begin the work of building its own network in town, though LaChapelle said GoNetSpeed likely wouldn’t have entered the market — which Hoare, the company’s lawyer, described as “attractive” — if a municipal utility were there to compete for customers.

“Is it disappointing that we won’t have our own broadband? Yes,” LaChapelle said. “But also, going forward and staying with a private company, I feel like the city in 10 years, in 20 years, will be more on top of technology with GoNetSpeet than with [a municipal light plant] that has to continually upgrade and improve lines in the city.”

St. Pierre said that he sympathizes with City Hall, given the administration’s long list of projects now in the works to improve quality of life in the city.

“Unfortunately, the municipality, for whichever reason, was not able to move forward and the private company saw the opportunity and jumped on it,” he said. “Even though we could have done it on a municipal level if we had moved a little faster.”

City Councilor Tom Peake was perhaps the biggest proponent of municipal broadband, moving the project through two City Council votes in order to get the question on the ballot asking residents if they wanted to create a municipal light plant. Peake declined an on-the-record interview about LaChapelle’s decision. In a statement, he said that it came down to the mayor and her team deciding to head in a different direction.

“I was opposed to the decision, but I understand why she made it,” Peake said. “This network will get built out, and it won’t cost the city anything. We also won’t own it or gain any of the benefits of owning it, which to me is a huge missed opportunity. On the other hand, it will allegedly be built much faster than the timeline we had for financing and building a municipal network.”

“Tough call either way,” he added.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at dusty.christensen@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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Massachusetts seeks to streamline approvals for community choice aggregation

City Hall in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts officials are proposing policy solutions to address a bureaucratic backlog that municipal leaders and clean energy advocates say is bogging down one of the state’s most successful drivers of clean electricity purchases.

Nineteen communities across the state are waiting for public utility regulators to rule on proposed community choice aggregation plans, in which local governments negotiate with power suppliers for lower prices or a higher share of renewables.

Some of these municipalities have been waiting for more than two years to launch their programs. Another 16 are waiting to see if the state will let them modify existing programs. As the proposals languish, municipalities are missing out on chances to save residents money and cut carbon emissions.

In response to this backlog, the state energy department has proposed a new system to streamline the process, though many advocates are highly skeptical of these guidelines.

“I’m not sure that the way they’ve drafted them is really going to address the backlog,” said Martha Grover, sustainability manager for the city of Melrose, which first adopted community choice aggregation in 2015 and has held off updating the program in recent years because of the delays.

In addition, state Rep. Tommy Vitolo has introduced a bill that would require faster response times and allow municipalities to make some changes to programs without seeking state approval.

Massachusetts was the first state to introduce these programs, as a part of electricity restructuring legislation passed in 1997. The policy allows individual cities and towns or groups of municipalities to use the promise of a built-in customer base to negotiate with power suppliers for prices. Generally, residents are automatically enrolled but can opt out at any time.

The Cape Light Compact, a group of 21 towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, formed the state’s first aggregation program in 2000. The idea was slow to catch on, however, until electricity prices started rising in 2013 and 2014, prompting more municipalities to seek alternatives. Today, there are 168 municipal aggregation plans active in the state, saving consumers more than $200 million annually, according to a report from the nonprofit Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Though not explicitly an emissions reduction program, aggregation also allows municipalities to include more renewable energy in their portfolios than legally required. And many of them do exactly that: 76 of Massachusetts’ aggregation programs included extra renewable content in 2022, according to the consumers alliance. Another 40 communities let individual residents opt-in to higher levels of renewable energy. In 2022, Massachusetts’ green energy aggregation programs increased demand for renewable energy in the state by more than 1 million megawatt-hours, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance calculated.

“There is no other program in the commonwealth that produces cleaner electrons without subsidy,” said alliance executive director Larry Chretien.

The delays were first caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement from the state energy department. Additionally, the complexity of the rules and requirements for a successful application have also slowed things down, state officials and municipal leaders agree. Each time regulators rule on a plan, any new precedent set by that ruling must be complied with by all future applicants. This requirement makes it hard for municipalities to understand the rules and forces frequent revisions. It also makes it more painstaking for the state to ensure a proposal meets the ever-changing slate of requirements.

“There are now 168 approved plans and we are held accountable to rules and ways of operating that are buried in the footnotes,” Grover said.

The proposed solutions

The state has responded to the backlog by releasing draft guidelines that summarize and simplify the detailed requirements. It has also issued an application template and proposed an expedited approval process for municipalities that use the template.

“Addressing these delays is a top priority for the [Department of Public Utilities], and we look forward to announcing finalized guidelines that will help facilitate a timely review of applications,” said department chair Jamie Van Nostrand.

For many municipalities, however, the guidelines make no changes to the process, but only formalize the existing approach, which many say amounts to micromanagement. At least eight cities and towns have filed testimony so far arguing that the proposal erodes local control and would be unlikely to speed up approvals. The draft guidelines would make the process “more burdensome and less efficient,” testified Michael Ossing, city council president in Marlborough, which adopted community choice aggregation in 2006, saving residents an estimated $26 million over the past 17 years.

“Aggregation should be under municipal control,” said Anthony Rinaldi, an Amesbury city councilor. “We should control how we implement the program, how we inform our citizens. But they want to control every little thing.”

Vitolo’s bill offers an alternative approach. It would address the delays by requiring the state to issue a decision on aggregation applications within 90 days. If this deadline is not met, a program would automatically be approved. If regulators rejected a program, and applicants resubmitted an amended plan within 30 days, the state would then have 30 days to issue a decision.

The bill would also allow cities and towns to make certain changes — including periodic changes to prices and product offerings, means of providing notifications to customers, and sharing translated materials — to their programs without returning to utility regulators for approval. Vitolo points to Boston, which launched a community choice program in 2021, as an example: the city wants to distribute translations of its information materials, but can’t do so without getting in the slow-moving line for approval.

“It’s been frustrating,” Vitolo said. “We want to allow these aggregators to make simple straightforward changes without going to the [state].”

Vitolo’s bill had a committee hearing in late September. Now supporters must wait to see if it gains traction in the legislature.

Massachusetts seeks to streamline approvals for community choice aggregation is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

The State of the Labor Movement

EASTHAMPTON — At 92 years old, Bob Jensen has spent nearly all his life in the labor movement. A union bricklayer who arrived in western Massachusetts on a football scholarship at American International College, he ended up becoming a labor educator at the University of Connecticut, a negotiator with the American Federation of Teachers and an active organizer locally.

As Jensen surveys the state of organized labor in western Massachusetts and beyond, after decades involved in workers’ struggles locally and nationwide, he said there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

“Workers are fed up in every area,” he said, from airline pilots to baristas. “They’re organizing to demand what is rightfully theirs.”

Jensen was addressing a large gathering of union members, activists and organizers celebrating Labor Day at the Western Mass Area Labor Federation’s picnic in Easthampton on Sunday.

As a wave of high-profile union organizing continues to sweep across the country, including in western Massachusetts, several recent nationwide polls have found that support for unions is higher than it has been in decades. After a summer of strikes and almost strikes, from actors and writers to UPS drivers, 2023 may see the most U.S. workers walking off the job since the 2018 “Red for Ed” teacher strikes.

Western Massachusetts has had its own moment in the spotlight, too, amid all of that organizing. Since last summer, Hadley has been home to several “firsts” in unionizing large corporate chains: Trader Joe’s last July, Barnes & Noble this May and Michael’s last month. Educators across the region fought public battles for new contracts, retail workers walked off the job, nurses picketed the loss of hospital beds and daycare workers in Springfield went out on strike.

Now, as the summer comes to a close, labor organizers and union leaders around the area are reflecting on the rejuvenated state of the labor movement in western Massachusetts and the struggles they see ahead.

“It definitely feels like there’s a new energy and excitement,” Max Page, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told The Shoestring. “So often, we’re like: ‘Everything sucks.’ Now we’re like: ‘What can we achieve.’”

Page is part of the rank-and-file, activist caucus within the MTA — Educators for a Democratic Union — that over the past 10 years has reshaped the union’s vision to fight aggressively for progressive policies inside and outside of the classroom. Last year, the MTA successfully put forward a ballot question that raised taxes on the state’s millionaires to better fund education and transportation — an initiative Page said that western Massachusetts turned out in large numbers to vote for in November, playing a vital role in its passage. The union has also supported educators across the state going out on strike, despite the fact that state law bars public employees from striking.

Now, the MTA is prioritizing two long-time goals of education activists: scrapping Massachusetts’ high-stakes MCAS testing and making public higher education debt-free for the state’s students.

“This is the year to win it,” he said.

The past year, immigrant workers have also seen some of the fruits of their longtime struggles for economic and racial justice.

In a phone interview with The Shoestring, Pioneer Valley Workers Center Executive Director Claudia Rosales said that immigrant workers and their families won a major victory this year when, in July, undocumented immigrants could begin applying for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts. After years of organizing work by the Workers Center and other groups across the state, state lawmakers last year passed the Work and Family Mobility Act — a major priority for immigrant workers and their allies across the state.

“It’s so important because it stops families from being separated by detentions on the part of ICE,” Rosales said, using the acronym for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now, Rosales said, the next legislative priority for local farm workers is challenging the state’s minimum wage law. After a five-year hike to the minimum wage, workers in Massachusetts earn a minimum wage of $15 per hour. However, agricultural laborers are exempt from that law, meaning employers can pay them as little as $8 per hour.

“We need to get that off the books,” she said.

Those who have spent decades organizing workers locally expressed optimism that now is the time to win victories like those.

Jeff Jones first got involved in the local labor movement as a Stop &s Shop worker in the 1980s. Now the president of UFCW Local 1459 and the executive board of the Western Mass Area Labor Federation, he said those entering the workforce now are increasingly organizing for better pay and conditions.

“It’s a whole new, younger generation that has come in and is eager to learn the history of the labor movement and apply it,” he said. And western Massachusetts, he added, is “one of the most progressive pockets in the labor movement,” having an outsized influence despite the region’s small size.

Clare Hammonds, a professor at the influential UMass Amherst Labor Center, pointed to the workers unionizing at Barnes & Noble and Michael’s as an example of western Massachusetts organizers tackling big issues.

But union membership does still remain in decline, however, despite the high-profile surge in new organizing. In 2022, union membership hit a record low of 10.1%. But Hammonds said that as more workers win unions, that winning is contagious.

The issues those workers in Hadley and beyond are discussing — fair pay and decent hours, for example — aren’t new. What is new, she said, is the energy and support they feel from the community as they step up and take risks to improve their working conditions.

“It feels like we’re on the cusp of something really exciting,” she said.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at dusty.christensen@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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Michaels Workers in Hadley Organize Store’s First-Ever Union

HADLEY — Earlier this month, 24 workers at the Hadley location of the arts-and-crafts retailer Michaels announced their intent to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459. If they win an election before the National Labor Relations Board, they’ll become the very first union recognized at any store in Michaels’ nationwide chain.

On Aug. 10, the workers filed cards with the NLRB, triggering an election. Michaels employee Peter Boots-Faubert works as a framer at the store — a job they said pays minimum wage. In a phone interview, they told The Shoestring that a supermajority of workers have signed union cards. Two of the biggest issues for those workers, they said, were low pay and a lack of staffing.

“A lot of the time, people don’t get breaks,” they said. “There’s not enough people working.”

Michaels did not return an email from The Shoestring requesting comment.

With a population of just over 5,000, Hadley is best known, perhaps, for its asparagus. But now, the town is gaining fame outside of the region for another reason: new union organizing.

Hadley has now become a town of “firsts” in unionizing large corporate chains. Last July, workers at the Trader Joe’s just down the street from Michaels formed the first-ever union at that chain. Their independent union born in Hadley, Trader Joe’s United, went on to organize workers at Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis, MN, Louisville, KY, and Oakland, CA.

Then, this May, workers next door at Barnes & Noble in Hadley voted to unionize with UFCW Local 1459. That was the first stand-alone Barnes & Noble location in the country to unionize; two weeks, prior around 70 workers had voted to unionize a Barnes & Noble College Booksellers location at Rutgers University.

Michaels now becomes the latest store on the Route 9 corridor to unionize. The spark of new organizing led the news outlet More Perfect Union to dub Hadley “Solidarity Central.”

Chase Goates, who works mostly as a cashier at Michaels, said that he and others were inspired by Trader Joe’s United and then further buoyed when they saw Barnes & Noble workers unionize in the same Mountain Farms Mall building as them. Since the Michaels staffers went public with their union, he said the other nearby unions have reached out over social media to connect with them.

“Their support so far has been very positive,” Boots-Faubert said. “I love all of the ‘Hadley is a union town’ stuff going around,” Goates added.

Boots-Faubert said that workers at Michaels are paid very little and have to deal with workplace struggles like not being able to sit down, a lack of janitorial services and difficult hours. Goates added that the company responded to the union effort with “one of the most copy-paste union-busting letters I’ve seen.”

UFCW organizers Drew Weisse and Gillian Petrarca told The Shoestring that the union will represent all non-managerial workers at the Michaels location.
Weisse said that Trader Joe’s United had a big impact on both the Barnes & Noble and Michaels workers who decided to unionize.

“Once you see retail locations start to move, other workers at smaller companies or less prominent ones say, ‘Oh, we can do that too,’” Weisse said.

Michaels describes itself at the largest arts-and-crafts retailer in North America. Filings with the NLRB show that Michaels has hired a lawyer from the firm Ogletree Deakins, which is known for the “union avoidance” services it provides clients.

Photo by Mike Mozart

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at dusty.christensen@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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Protesters rally against police brutality in Northampton after violent arrest

[Content warning: The video of this arrest shows police using force against a civilian. The incident is also described in the text of the article.]

NORTHAMPTON — Last week, when The Shoestring published a video of Northampton police tackling and pepper-spraying a 60-year-old woman in April, city resident Jada Tarbutton was disturbed. As a Black woman who lives in Northampton, she said the violent arrest of a person of color reinforced her belief that the city’s progressive reputation is only true for some of its residents.

“I’m scared in Northampton,” she said. “It hurts my heart. I don’t feel safe.”

Tarbutton was one of over 70 people who showed up at City Hall on Sunday to protest against police brutality. The demonstration came after The Shoestring broke the story that on April 4, police pulled over Marisol Driouech — who was in the city working as a food-delivery driver — and within five minutes had yanked her out of her car, tackled her to the ground and pepper sprayed her. The Northampton Police Department cleared the arresting officer, John Sellew, and Jonathan Bartlett, the officer who pepper-sprayed Driouech, of any wrongdoing. So did a consulting firm the department hired to investigate the incident.

But for those gathered Monday, the incident was a clear case of police violently escalating a minor traffic stop on a woman whose first language is Spanish and who told Sellew she didn’t understand him.

“Hey hey, ho ho, John Sellew has got to go!” the protesters chanted. They called for Bartlett to be fired and for Police Chief Jody Kasper to resign over the department’s handling of the case.

Several communist and socialist groups organized the rally. John “J.R.” Rivera, a member of the Workers Party of Massachusetts, said that Driouech is from the same Holyoke neighborhood as him. As a Puerto Rican, he said her arrest is a reminder of how immigrants and non-native English speakers are at risk of police violence.

“I’ve never felt particularly protected by any police, but this moment solidified what I know now: whatever community the police protect, people like me aren’t a part of it,” he said.

There was no immediately visible police presence at the protest. However, the Northampton Police Department’s drone flew above the crowd and officers erected barricades in front of the police department.

The officers’ arrest of Driouech sent her to the hospital. Sellew wrote in his arrest report that after failing to hand over her license and registration, Driouech tried to roll up her window during the traffic stop and then put her car in drive. He accused her of resisting arrest when he ordered her out of her car and grabbing his baton from its holster as he tried to take her down.

Another speaker at Sunday’s protest, Workers Party member Dennis Moore, noted that Sellew wrote in that same report that once Driouech had his baton, he realized that he “had the ability to utilize strikes or possibly lethal force.”

“However, due to her size, I believed that I could subdue her using takedown techniques until additional units arrived,” Sellew wrote. Driouech is 5 feet tall and weighs some 120 pounds.

“Officer Sellew believed that he had the right to kill a 60-year-old woman whose only fault was having a broken headlight and not understanding English well,” Moore said. He went on to ask what might have happened if Sellew had encountered a younger, more fit person during the traffic stop. “Had he pulled over a young, male ESL person, would the incident have ended in a blood bath? I hope we never find out.”

Reacting to Sellew’s comments about lethal force, city resident Dan Cannity — the former co-chair of the city’s Policing Review Commission — told The Shoestring that the entire system is irrevocably broken and that just firing one or two officers isn’t enough. He said protesters were sending a message to city leaders: “the community is fed up with violence and policing against members of our community.”

“If an old woman can be yanked out of her car, pinned down and pepper-sprayed, who is safe?” Cannity asked.

Police initially charged Driouech with assault and battery on a police officer, attempting to disarm a police officer, resisting arrest and refusing to identify herself, in addition to the lights violation, according to court documents. But the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office dismissed all of those criminal charges against Driouech, who admitted to the broken headlight charge. 

Local defense attorney Dana Goldblatt is now representing Driouech and has said she intends to present claims to the city before possibly suing over the arrest. 

Goldblatt is currently suing the city on behalf of another person Northampton police pepper-sprayed in 2017, Eric Matlock. Another man is also suing Northampton and five police officers over allegations that they tackled him to the ground, kicked him, beat him with a baton, pepper-sprayed and arrested him during a mental-health episode in 2019.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at dusty.christensen@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! You can support independent news for Western Mass by visiting our Donate page.

Underpaid and overlooked, migrant labor provides backbone of Maryland Eastern Shore’s local economy

A migrant worker picks crabs in Hoopers Island, Maryland. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Every summer, people flock to Maryland to eat blue crabs. Named for their brilliant sapphire-colored claws, blue crab is one of the most iconic species in the Chesapeake Bay. The scientific name for blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, means “beautiful savory swimmer.”

In restaurants and at home, diners pile steamed and seasoned blue crabs in the middle of a table covered in paper. Then, using small mallets, knives, bare hands and fingers, they break open the hard shells and extract the juicy meat from inside.

It is a messy experience, especially with Old Bay seasoning and beer known locally as Natty Bohs, one that is quintessentially Maryland.

Though many people know firsthand how difficult it is to pick and clean crab meat, they often don’t realize how crab is processed when it is sold in stores already picked and cleaned. Most people also may not know that crab picking is a livelihood for many, mainly poor, women.

For generations, African American women from Maryland’s rural, maritime communities labored for crab houses on the Eastern Shore.

Today, fewer than 10 crab houses are left on the Shore. The workforce consists of mainly female migrant workers from Mexico who do the grueling job of picking crab for eight to nine hours a day, from late spring to early fall. They make on average of US$2.50 to $4.00 for every pound of crabmeat they pick.

That pay is roughly one-tenth to one-twelfth of the wholesale price of one pound – or about a half of a kilogram – of the seafood they pick, which is $35 to $44. In comparison, the Maryland minimum wage is $13.25 an hour, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Rise of immigration in rural America

Over 2.1 million migrants and immigrants work in jobs growing and processing food in the United States, playing an essential role in feeding Americans.

As an anthropologist and global health researcher, my work has shown that they are part of an increasing trend in rural America. Since 1990, immigrants have been moving to small towns and rural regions at unprecedented rates, accounting for 37% of the overall rural population growth from 2000-2018.

Some rural counties, like Stewart County in Georgia and Franklin County in Alabama, have experienced growth rates of over 1,000% in their foreign-born population, which have boosted their local economies and mitigated rural population decline.

Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, for instance, has experienced a rapid rise in immigration since 2000. From 2010 to 2019, migration was the primary source of population growth, with the foreign-born population increasing by 90%.

A man dumps out a basket full of crabs onto a table where two women are standing with small carving knives.
A migrant worker dumps out a bushel of crabs to be picked and cleaned by two other migrant workers.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Many immigrants come to this region to find work in agriculture, poultry and seafood processing. Some come directly from Mexico, Central America and Haiti.

Typically, farmworkers have temporary visas and arrive in late spring and early summer and stay through the growing season. Migrant Mexican women who work in crab processing also follow the same seasonal employment pattern. Others, like those working in poultry processing plants, have settled here more permanently, either as undocumented or permanent residents.

At risk of exploitation and injury

Immigrant workers in rural regions work dangerous jobs and are exposed to pollution, deplorable living conditions and limited safety training.

Additionally, immigrant workers are among the lowest paid and lack access to health information, preventive care and medical treatment. Dry skin, cuts, scrapes, rashes, chronic pain and broken bones are common among immigrants who work in agriculture, poultry and seafood processing.

These workers also suffer from numerous invisible injuries such as discrimination, verbal harassment and physical exploitation.

Challenges to rural health

Despite the daily risk of harm, migrant workers in rural regions have limited access to health care and rely on mobile clinics, local health departments and community health centers.

A lump of crab meat is on top of a fish filet.
A hearty portion of crabmeat is served atop a fillet of rockfish.
Edwin Remsberg/VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images

But these facilities are not equipped to handle specialty care or emergencies. Nor are many of them easily accessible due to location or hours of operation. In addition, many workers cannot afford to miss work or are afraid to tell their supervisors that they need care.

Some avoid health providers altogether because they are not treated well or feel misunderstood.

Essential but undervalued

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the notion of “essential” workers became part of the nation’s vocabulary as a way to describe people required to continue in-person work under lockdown conditions. They included food industry workers.

The pandemic exposed the disproportionate numbers of immigrant workers in the agriculture, poultry and seafood industries in rural America.

It also revealed how policies enacted during the pandemic to protect public health and essential workers did little to prevent people from working in dangerous workplace conditions without adequate safeguards.

Unable to self-quarantine at home, many food production workers got sick or even died as a result of working in crowded conditions without personal protective equipment and adequate ventilation.

As the sun sets in the background, a young man on a boat pulls in a net from the water.
A young waterman pulls in a crab trap as the Sun sets behind him in Dundalk, Md.
Edwin Remsberg/VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the long-standing crisis of health care for immigrants in rural America.

But despite evidence that close to 2.5 million foreign-born people live and work in rural America, very little information exists on these people’s health.

This inattention by lawmakers is harmful and dangerous because it leaves health care providers and social workers with little understanding of immigrant experiences in small towns and sparsely populated rural communities.

The Conversation

Thurka Sangaramoorthy receives funding from The National Institutes of Health.

“We’re Not in the Same Boat”: Flood Impacts Felt Unevenly Across Valley

NORTHAMPTON — Just last week, local farmer Courtney Whitely was staring out over the plot of land off Meadow Street where he grows eggplant and other crops. It was the best crop he has ever had, he said proudly.

But now it’s all gone.

Whitely’s Ras Farm was one of many local farms devastated when the Mill and Connecticut rivers flooded this week. After days of heavy rain across the Connecticut River Valley and in Vermont, the deluge destroyed the crops and livelihoods of farmers across the region. Now, those who work the land are assessing the damages and preparing for an uncertain future. And they’re not alone.

The floods have ravaged not just farms but homes, buildings and public infrastructure. And while the true extent of the damage is still emerging, it is becoming clear that socially vulnerable populations — immigrants, people of color, small-scale farmers, the unhoused — have experienced a heavy burden, mirroring longtime warnings from experts who have said that climate change will disproportionately impact those groups

“It was like someone stabbed me,” Whitely said Wednesday, gesturing to the muddy fields behind him and describing the hard work that the floods had washed away. Originally from Jamaica, he has spent some two decades farming here in the Valley. What might have been salvaged likely is unusable because of the contaminants that the flood waters brought. “If it’s not drought, it’s rain. If it’s not rain, it’s flood.”

Climate change experts say that global warming has resulted in a kind of “weather whiplash.” Years of drought can be followed by massive rain events made possible because warmer air can hold more moisture. From California to India, extreme weather events have become more intense and more frequent, punctuated by dry spells. In Massachusetts, the summer of 2021 was one of the wettest on record followed the next summer by a drought. This month, some places in Vermont were hit with 9 inches of rain in a day, an amount more typical of an entire summer.

“Warming may be leading to hydroclimate whiplash … which means wide swings between wet and dry periods,” said Michael Rawlins, the associate director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Climate System Research Center. “This is believed to be an emerging manifestation of climate warming.”

In addition to smaller-scale farmers like Whitely, farm laborers — many of whom are undocumented immigrants — are already losing their livelihoods because of the flooding in the Connecticut River Valley.

“There are people telling me that because of the floods, all of this that’s happening, they are already not working or are working just one or two times a week,” said Claudia Rosales, who heads the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and has herself been a farmworker. “They need that work to live.”

Rosales said that the Workers Center is organizing to find farm workers employment at other farms or elsewhere. The organization also runs a mutual-aid food distribution program and is working to get financial assistance to impacted workers, she said. But for farm workers who do such essential work, finding other jobs is difficult for many because of their immigration status.

“Those immigrants need that work as much as society does,” Rosales said.

People without housing were also hit hard by the flooding. In an interview with MassLive, Manna Community Center’s Jess Tilley said on Wednesday that six unhoused people had been displaced by flooding at their camp site. 

“Many folks have lost all their belongings including tents, sleeping bags and outerwear,” the organization wrote on their Facebook page. Efforts to reach Manna were unsuccessful Thursday.

Much of the focus has been on farms, though, given the heavy damage they suffered.

On Wednesday, state officials and local lawmakers toured farms across the region that had been submerged and had only just become accessible. The first stop was at the 121-acre Grow Food Northampton Community Farm, where farmers can lease low-cost land and more than 400 community members grow organic garden plots, about a third of which are subsidized. Alisa Klein, the organization’s executive director, said that 275 of the 325 plots there had been inundated.

Pat James, the group’s community garden manager, said that walking through the plots was still heartbreaking, pointing to some of the produce Grow Food Northampton gives to food pantries and other meal sites across the region. Bigger, industrial farms might have an easier time rebounding from floods, but small-scale operations will be less likely to survive, James said.

“We’re not in the same boat,” was how James described the difference between agro giants and independent, small-scale farms. “We’re all in the same water right now … But the people with more resources and access have an easier way out of the water.”

Many of the secondary and tertiary consequences of the flooding are still yet undetermined, state Sen. Jo Comerford said as she walked through a parking lot caked with river mud on her way to see some of the affected farmland. Some of those local food pantries will be missing food they had counted on, for example. And it wasn’t clear as of Wednesday whether the financial costs of the disaster would hit the necessary threshold to trigger a bigger federal response, Comerford added.

“The ripples of this are unknowable at this point,” she said.

Puddles of water were still present on the fields Comerford was visiting. There, a group of Somali Bantu refugees work the land as a cooperative: the New Family Community Farming Coop. Acting as an interpreter between the English-speaking officials and the Maay Maay-speaking farmers, Mumat Aweys explained that out of about 20 plots farmed by the coop, a handful had been flooded.

“They put a lot of work into it; they mostly plow by hand,” Aweys said. “All that work … goes to ruins.”

As the planet gets hotter, many experts have called for municipalities, states and the federal government to get more serious about updating infrastructure to become more resilient. Northampton has gone so far as to create a new department, the Climate Action and Project Administration Department, to make sure that city projects meet climate and sustainability goals — something mayoral chief of staff Alan Wolf said has now become “part of the math of municipal government in the 21st century.”

“Reducing our vulnerability to extreme hydrologic events is an important component of adaptation to climate change,” said Rawlins, the UMass Amherst researcher. He said that extreme precipitation events are increasing faster in the Northeast than anywhere in the country.

On the federal level, Congress is currently debating its “Farm Bill,” which lawmakers pass every five years. The massive legislation puts money toward the country’s food systems, and climate-justice advocates are pushing for significant investments in building more resilience and more steps to reduce carbon emissions.

“The evidence and science and everything around us clearly points to one thing: our future is going to be unlike our past and it’s becoming more difficult to predict that future,” said Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “What we need to do is build more resilient agricultural systems that can adapt to changing climatic patterns but also adapt to drought, to floods.”

Goswami said that from an environmental health perspective, the contamination brought by floodwaters needs to be accounted for. She said that the Farm Bill is a critical moment to further the vital work of building an agricultural model that stops harming the soil and instead works to sequester carbon and prepares for nasty weather ahead.

“This is an opportunity for … everybody to advocate for a more climate-focused Farm Bill,” she said.

One of the farmers at Grown Food Northampton was in the process of experimenting with perennial crops to figure out what could best deal with extreme weather. Piyush Labhsetwar is growing wheat and a pawpaw orchard along the banks of the Mill River, which were all five feet underwater after the floods.

“It’s a mixed bag for me,” he said on Wednesday. Nothing had been uprooted, for example. He just didn’t plan to have such an extreme event test that resiliency in his first year of experimenting.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at dusty.christensen@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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One year after the fall of Roe v. Wade, abortion care has become a patchwork of confusing state laws that deepen existing inequalities

Redacted: State Withholding Plans for New Women’s Prison

When the state House and Senate passed a five-year moratorium on building any new prisons and jails last year, those who had spent years fighting against the construction of a new women’s prison thought that the Legislature was finally listening.

But, in one of his last moves in office last August, former Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed the bill. Now, under Gov. Maura Healey, the new women’s prison is back on the table. What’s more, the state agencies in charge of prisons and public construction are blocking public records requests from activists opposed to the project for meeting minutes and other planning documents.

According to activists who requested those records, the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, or DCAMM, and the state Department of Correction are refusing to share information about the project’s progress with concerned citizens through a controversial exemption to the state’s public records law known as the “deliberative process exemption.” 

Organizations and people concerned about the expansion of prisons in Massachusetts have received heavily redacted copies of documents in two recent attempts at seeking public information about the project. DCAMM released bi-weekly meeting minutes dating from September to May, but most pages were completely redacted. 

“The lack of transparency and accountability is unacceptable,” said Mallory Hanora, the executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, which is leading the #NoNewWomensPrison Campaign and requested the records. 

As incarceration rates in Massachusetts continue to fall and alternatives to prison are organized and passed into law, the Department of Correction continues to insist that a $50 million new women’s prison project is necessary to eventually replace MCI-Framingham, which is the oldest continuously operating prison in the United States. Organizers fighting the project are struggling to gather information in a state with some of the most opaque public records laws in the country. Massachusetts is the only state where the Legislature, courts and governor’s office all claim to be entirely exempt from disclosure laws. Healey campaigned on the promise that she would be one of the most transparent governors in state history, but quickly backtracked on that once in office

Hanora and her legal counsel are in the process of appealing the redactions. The most recent release from DCAMM included the list of state employees attending the bi-weekly planning meetings. The names John Rose and Sean Foley — both listed as construction coordinators for the Department of Correction — are bad news to the project’s opponents. 

According to Massachusetts public records law, the deliberative process exemption that DCAMM is citing applies to “inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters relating to policy positions being developed by the agency.”

“This subclause shall not apply to reasonably completed factual studies or reports on which the development of such policy positions has been or may be based,” the law reads. 

The exemption is one of 23 such exemptions in Massachusetts. It divides all governmental information into two categories: “fact” and “opinion.” Factual information — like whether a final decision has been made about the prison project — is not protected by the exemption and must be made available to the public. The exemption protects “pre-decisional” and opinion-based information — the initial recommendation of a policy-maker, for instance. 

“According to the Secretary of State’s Guide on Massachusetts Public Records Law, state agencies can withhold documents chronicling discussions related to ‘legal and policy matters,’ but they must reveal factual matters involved in the deliberative process,” said Catherine Sevcenko, who is senior counsel for the National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, of which FJAH is a member. 

Sevcenko said that it’s unclear what the agency has redacted, but that “blacking out 90% of a document on the grounds that it reflects opinion rather than facts is concerning.” 

“Either the decision to build a new women’s prison is being taken with a scant factual basis, or the Commonwealth is withholding information that citizens are entitled to know,” Sevcenko said. “Neither is acceptable.” 

In its response to Hanora’s records request, DCAMM said that the redactions it made to the records were justified under the deliberative process exemption.

“Please note, portions of the requested records have been withheld or redacted pursuant to the Deliberative Process Exemption set out at G.L. c. 4, § 7(26)(d) (‘Exemption (d)’),” the agency wrote in its response. “This exemption applies to inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters relating to policy positions being developed by the agency, in this instance, policy relating to corrections in the Commonwealth.  Policy positions being developed by the agency is ongoing and therefore exempt from mandatory disclosure at this time.” 

Hanora and other activists insist that they should have access to policy regarding women’s incarceration even as it’s being developed. FJAH is made up of, and works directly with, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, the demographic that will be most impacted by state decisions regarding the new prison. 

Deliberative process exemptions to public information laws have garnered controversy across the nation, not just in Massachusetts. 

In 2019, for example, the Sierra Club challenged the use of a deliberative process exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act in a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In May 2021, the court’s justices ruled in favor of the exemption, saying that “facilitating agency candor in exercising its expertise in preliminary agency deliberations” can outweigh “transparency and accountability concerns.” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the opinion, her first since joining the court. 

The Sierra Club’s case was the first time that FOIA exemption had been addressed by the court in 20 years. Advocacy organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in the case, were hopeful the court would strengthen FOIA, but its ruling further blurred the lines. According to the Yale Journal of Regulation, the decision “furthers government secrecy.” 

Elsewhere, in Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee has drawn scrutiny for using that state’s deliberative process exemption frequently since 2019 to deny records to journalists and state representatives. 

The use of the exemption here in Massachusetts raises concerns about government transparency on a costly and beleaguered project. And it’s not the first time that opponents of the project have raised alarms about DCAMM and DOC failing to meet legal obligations around communicating with the public. The project has been shrouded in secrecy since the state failed to properly advertise its first request for proposals in 2019. That initial proposal and a second were withdrawn after administrative challenges citing improper procedures were filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General Office’s Bid Unit during Healey’s tenure as attorney general.

“This is typical of the DOC,” Hanora said. “Redacting notes about the new women’s prison project is just another example of how this rogue agency avoids accountability and the rest of the executive branch lets it happen.”

Hanora said that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women have been clear that there is “no such thing as a safe or trauma-informed prison,” despite what the DOC claims they hope to build. 

“People are demanding that the state does something different and better for women than yet another prison where DOC’s abuse and medical neglect will certainly continue,” she added.

Sierra Dickey is a writer and educator living in Gill. Find her on Twitter @dierrasickey.

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! You can support independent news for Western Mass by visiting our Donate page.