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Terrorism? State balks at records pleas for documents in AHS rebuild

Town provides some of what MSBA does not

ahs6418forumcosts 400Projected costs for four high schools, presented at the June 4 forum.

A former Arlington official known for persistence wants as much detail as he can about plans to date for a new public high school, which he calls among the most expensive in state history.

Chris Loreti, who served on the Redevelopment Board until 2011, began asking for the full record of documents about the proposed design before the school administration submitted to the state on April 24. An initial public-records request was denied, he appealed and that was denied, as the state cited as one reason fears of terrorism.

In his response to the appeal, Loreti says the town has provided many of the documents he seeks, yet he perseveres in going after the full record from the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA). "I have received nothing from MSBA," he wrote in an email June 6, a day after he responded to the state's latest denial. "I don't know what is in sections I haven't seen."

As to terrorist fears, he calls that a "last-minute claim -- but they cannot withhold information that is not security-related."

Asked his overall aim in seeking the full information about what the schools submitted in April -- called a PDP, for Preliminary Design Program -- he wrote: "To better understand the plans for the new school and how the cost has mushroomed."

Claims state officials changed responses

In addition, Loreti wrote, the "MSBA denied my request for the Preliminary Design Program in its entirety based on the claim that it contains security information that should not be released to the public -- after first telling me they would provide me the report with redactions. That is what the law requires.

"They cannot withhold a public record in its entirety merely because small sections of it may be exempt from disclosure. This would be like the Police Department telling you that you could not have any part of their recent report on the Athletic Director scandal because there was some information in it that needed to be redacted."

To address security concerns, he said he is willing to accept redacted documents and suspects they are few. Attorneys for the state Division of Public Records, in its latest response, suggested charging Loreti for redactions in the 1,152-page document.

Asked whether he would agree to pay charges for redacting, Loreti wrote: "They already agreed to provide the whole document (with redactions) without charge. I don't see how they can try to impose a fee now -- simply because I appealed their complete refusal to provide any of it."

The latest estimates for a new AHS, called "very preliminary" at the June 4 design forum about AHS at Town Hall, range from $287 million to $298 million.

Some earlier estimates, terrorism trend

Costs of other nearby high school projects underway via the state School Building Authority process are illustrated in the graphic accompanying this story. These amounts were presented at the June 4 forum. (The MSBA links to projects and costs are not working.)

News reports provide earlier estimates: for Waltham ($283 million in 2016), Somerville ($256 million in 2016), Belmont (over $300 million in 2016) and Lowell ($344 million in 2017). 

In 2017, The Globe's Todd Wallach, whose reporting focuses on public records, attributed the State Police refusal to say how much they spent in salaries to operate each station to fears of terrorist getting the information.

"Agencies cited an exemption to the Massachusetts public records law that was enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to keep building blueprints and other sensitive documents out of the hands of terrorists," he wrote. "The exemption allows agencies to withhold certain documents if, in the reasonable judgment of the records holder, the disclosure is 'likely to jeopardize public safety or cyber security.'"

What happened when

When Loreti was a member of the Redevelopment Board and Town Meeting, he was known for sharp questions supported by facts. He has put that to work since April, as this timeline, based on email exchanges, shows:

-- April 16: First request made to the town for documents showing "design parameters for use in developing the eight preliminary design concepts for the future high school."

-- April 30: Town responded, providing this document, which was then posted on schools' website >> It is among those that the state authority later refused to release.

-- May 1: In an email to town, Loreti asked for the full PDP, since the section noted above had been posted.

-- May 3: After Loreti asked to review files, Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine offered the opportunity to review the "Preliminary Design Proposal" (he also abbreviates it PDP) in his office. At this time, Loreti didn't appreciate the difference between the Preliminary Design Proposal and the Preliminary Design Program. The latter is the formal submittal to MSBA.

-- May 4: Figuring it would be easier to get the PDP document electronically from the MSBA, Loreti said he contacted the agency. A records-access officer, Siobhan Tolman, says the Preliminary Design Program is five .pdf files, and she can send it the next day. She asks for a written request for it, and Loreti does that.

-- May 8: Records-access officer Brian Kelley tells Loreti he will receive the documents within 15 business days of his request. (Before that, Loreti had spoken by phone to Tolman about why no files had been sent, and she said they had to be reviewed for redactions and he would get them in a few days.)

-- May 23 (two days before the end of the 15-day period): Kelley seeks an extension, to June 1. Loreti declines, and Kelley does not ask the supervisor of records for an extension. Kelley says he'll provide the documents on May 25.

-- May 25: In an email, Kelley provides no documents and denies the records request in its entirety.

-- May 30: Loreti requests two sections of the PDP through the town manager: "... sections 3.1.3 and 3.1.6 are the ones I would like to have copies of, preferably electronically. Please consider this email to be a records request for those two sections." Loreti appeals the MSBA denial of the PDP to the state Supervisor of Records Rebecca Murray.

-- June 5: The town provides these two sections electronically. (Other sections of the PDP were posted to the rebuild website, but Loreti does not know when.)

Where does the process go next? Loreti still seeks all of the documents that the school administration submitted to the state on April 24.

The matter is up to the supervisor of records. She has 10 business days following receipt of the appeal. That means her response is due by about June 14.

Feb. 15, 2017: Mass. agencies increasingly cite terrorism risk to withhold records

Nov. 25, 2016: Mass. sees flurry of plans for pricey high schools

Dec. 1, 2017: 5 Most Expensive High Schools in America

June 6, 2018: AHS rebuild process moves toward one design by end of June

This news summary was published Friday, June 8, 2018.

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