Common Cause Massachusetts 2015 Testimony on Public Records Reform

May 26, 2015

Testimony in Support of H.2772, S.1676

Public Records Law Reforms

Pam Wilmot, Executive Director, Common Cause Massachusetts

Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight

May 26, 2015

            Common Cause’s mission centers on promoting open and accountable government and ensuring that all people have access to the political process.  Strong public records laws are vital to this mission.  Yet in Massachusetts, the public records law is broken. Rather than being a leader, Massachusetts lags far behind other states in providing prompt and reliable access to public records.  Way behind.  The Center for Public Integrity gave Massachusetts an “F” grade for our law, as have many other institutions that have surveyed the laws and practices in all 50 states.  This is unacceptable for our state. Our citizens deserve better.

            Why is the Massachusetts public records law so inadequate? It fails in many ways, but most significantly, it lacks an effective enforcement mechanism. Without any consequences for non-compliance, agencies and municipalities refuse to turn over documents, delay their response to records requests beyond a reasonable timeframe, charge outrageous fees in the tens of thousands of dollars, and excessively redact information that should be public (which often provides the alleged basis for excessive charges).

            Common Cause is proud to be one of the convening organizations behind the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance (MassFOIA), an association of 37 organizations which support updating and modernizing the Massachusetts Public Records law to provide for better enforcement, reduced costs, and more streamlined access to public records. MassFOIA includes groups focused on health care, the environment, elections, consumer protection, news outlets, civil rights organizations and more.  All endorse H. 2772 and S. 1676. In my experience, it is rare to see an association of organizations with this breadth and depth, and it signals the importance of the goal of fixing the broken public records law.

H. 2772 and S. 1676 re-introduce legislation, with only a few changes, that received a favourable report from this committee in the last legislative session. They are cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 50 legislators, led by Chairman Kocot and Senator Lewis.  They enjoy widespread support among the membership and with the public at large and have received extensive media coverage and support.

These bills would strengthen and modernize the Massachusetts public records law, which has not been significantly updated since 1973.  The bills would:

  • Reduce the cost of acquiring public records by ensuring that the fees charged do not exceed the actual costs by limiting the circumstances under which a person requesting information may be charged administrative fees.
  • Require that records made in electronic format be provided to the requester in that form and encourage agencies to make information more accessible through the Internet.
  • Require each agency to assign a records access officer to act as a liaison between information requesters and the agency to ensure that requesters know whom to contact and that the agency is better organized to provide the information to the public.
  • Allow the courts to award attorney’s fees to litigants who are wrongly denied access to public records. 47 other states provide for the recovery of court costs and attorney’s fees. South Dakota, Wyoming, and Massachusetts are the only ones that do not.

These bills would discourage agencies from obstructing or delaying public records requests and would help ensure that people who can’t afford a lawyer can still have access to public records. They would help ensure that people who make public records requests receive the information they deserve.

Thank you for your time.  We respectfully ask you to give these bills a favourable report.

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