Holy cassette tape! Boston records trapped in the ’80s


Mayor Marty Walsh wants improving technology in Boston to be one of the hallmarks of his administration. A good place to start the upgrades might be City Hall.

On Tuesday afternoon, I was working on a short piece about the Red Sox’s plan to open a new concession stand near Gate C at Fenway Park. I knew the club had gone before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals that morning to seek approval, and I wondered whether it had succeeded.

Minutes from the hearing were not posted online, so I called the ZBA office to find out what had happened. Before I could finish my question, the woman who answered the phone cut me off. No one in the office knew the result of the hearing, either. The reason: The minutes had not yet been delivered from City Hall, where the session was held, to the ZBA office on Massachusetts Avenue.

That’s right — delivered.

The minutes could not be sent electronically, I was informed. Not by e-mail. Not on a shared server.

Had they been recorded with a quill pen?

I didn’t actually say that. I try to keep the snarkiness in check when requesting public records.

I learned later that, in fact, there were no minutes from the hearing — at least not in the conventional sense. Instead, the session had been recorded on — get this — a cassette tape.

The tape would be stored in an office at City Hall, I was told, until a courier could deliver it by hand. That wasn’t going to happen on the same day as the hearing.

Perhaps the courier’s horse was being fitted for new shoes and wasn’t available.

Again, I kept this thought to myself.

The conclusion was that there is no way for the office of the Zoning Board of Appeals in Boston — not Four Bears Village, N.D. but Boston — to tell an inquiring citizen what happened a few miles up the road at its own board’s hearing. Not on the same day, anyway.

This is preposterous.

I realize many city records are readily available online, and my ordeal does not reflect the entire state of affairs in city government. Plus, I’m sure that ZBA meeting minutes rank pretty low on the list of most requested public documents, so I can understand why that office might lag behind some other departments.

But come on.

Being a pushy journalist, I got the name and e-mail address of the administrative assistant who worked at the hearing and asked him directly what the result was. He didn’t respond. He still hasn’t responded.

I only learned that the Red Sox had won the board’s unanimous approval from the team itself — a private organization that isn’t obligated to tell me anything — as opposed to a public office that’s required to share such information with the taxpayers who fund it.

(Dear Red Sox: I mention your lack of obligation merely to illustrate a point. Don’t get any ideas.)

I shared my experience with the mayor’s office this morning and asked about plans to modernize record keeping. I’ll update this post when I receive a response.

In the meantime, I might take my Walkman over to the ZBA office. That cassette is now available, I’m told.

Update: Response from mayoral spokeswoman Kate Norton:

“Mayor Walsh has made it clear that supporting technology is a huge priority for his administration, including how we conduct business in City Hall, how the people of Boston interact with city government, and how we attract and retain innovative businesses here. It can’t all change overnight, but the mayor has already taken some big steps forward since being sworn in 66 days ago. Unfortunately, the cassette tapes haven’t been addressed yet. We can use the mayor’s next Reddit AMA to crowdsource a solution.”

Cal Borchers is a business reporter for the Boston Globe. Reach him at callum.borchers@globe.com.
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