Local officials violate the Massachusetts public-records law routinely and without much in the way of consequences. If there's something they'd rather keep quiet, they refuse to release the documents and hope for the best.

Sometimes they lose. Such was the case with the city of Cambridge, which in May was ordered by the secretary of state's office to release records sought by the Cambridge Chronicle about two former city workers who had filed discrimination complaints. Turned out the city had settled with them for $4 million.

Sometimes, though, they win. Take, for instance, Abington school officials, who last September refused to release a video of the school-committee chairman performing an embarrassingly sexist magic trick on an unwitting female colleague in full view of the public. The incident was carried live on local cable. By any reasonable definition, the video was a public document under state law. But Shawn Williams, the supervisor of public records in Secretary of State Bill Galvin's office, denied a request by the Enterprise of Brockton and the Associated Press to order local officials to turn it over.

(And what is it about Abington? Just before deadline, the Enterprise reported that the town's police department had refused to release a report regarding an April accident in which a motorist fatally struck a 78-year-old pedestrian. The paper is now pursuing a public-records request.)

School Committee Chairman Russell FitzGerald was something of an amateur magician, and he liked to open meetings with a demonstration of his prowess. What landed him in trouble was his decision to perform something known as "the bra trick" on fellow committee member Ellen Killian, making it appear that he had removed her bra from underneath her clothing. Killian was not amused. The teacher who'd been drafted into helping was mortified. And FitzGerald, realizing he'd gone too far, apologized and later resigned from the committee.

School superintendent Peter Schafer refused to turn over the video, and Williams backed him up, saying, "This office finds that release of the withheld portion of the recording could serve to further embarrass and ridicule the female committee member."

Jonathan Albano, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, was incredulous, telling the Enterprise: "I'm not aware of any situation where something that happened at a publicly televised government meeting was considered private."

Albano, though, was no match for the multi-talented Williams. It was he, after all, who showed how to take a public record and make it disappear. Just like magic.

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