Massachusetts is buried. Buried in snow and buried beneath red tape that blocks access to our government. Journalists, concerned citizens, and others with a need -- and right -- to know how our government is working often can't get that information anymore.
The Boston Globe ran a story today that illustrates the issue. It describes how, despite Mayor Marty Walsh’s promises to make City Hall more transparent and open, a routine records request for basic payroll information by the Globe went over two months without a response from his administration. While the Mayor’s office has been preoccupied with snow issues like the rest of us, there is no good reason for that kind of delay. Timely and efficient access to public records is essential for newspapers and citizens to properly monitor the happenings of government.
Mayor Walsh admits this breakdown is “inexcusable,” and is promising to fix it, which is a good thing. Unfortunately though, it’s not just a problem in Boston, but one across Massachusetts. Records from the executive branch and municipal governments are supposed to be public unless specifically exempt, but have become functionally inaccessible due to excessive cost, technological barriers, and administrative obstruction or delay.
In another example, last year, the Bay State Examiner made a public records request for files on forty-nine Massachusetts State Police Officers. It was part of a report on how the department addresses allegations of misconduct among its ranks. Upon receiving this request, the agency’s attorney asked for an outrageous “research fee” of $710.50 just to cover the expenses of determining another fee amount for access to the files.
Let’s repeat that: there was a fee on the fee for access to public records. In addition, this “research fee” came forty-six days after the Bay State Examiner made their request, another violation of the ten day response limit required by law.
It’s no wonder the national State Integrity Investigation gave Massachusetts an “F” for public access to information.
Our public records law is clearly broken, and it hasn’t been substantially updated since 1973. We believe it’s time for 21st century reform.
Common Cause Massachusetts, and our coalition partners the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition propose the following:
(1) Promote electronic distribution of public records, and make more public documents available online. This would save time, money, and paper, while pre-empting the need for formal requests with constant online access.
(2) Make records affordable, with only nominal costs that aren’t large enough to actually inhibit access.
(3) Designate "records access officers" in government agencies, streamlining the access process and reducing bureaucratic complexity by assigning responsibility for answering requests.
(4) Allow courts to award attorney’s fees when agencies block access to public information, giving "teeth" to enforcement and promoting compliance with the law. Massachusetts is only one of 4 states that do not allow this.
Common Cause is working hard to achieve these goals with bills HD 1190, SD 1235, and SD 1088 sponsored by Rep. Kocot, Sen. Lewis, and Sen. Eldridge respectively.
Our Executive Director, Pam Wilmot, sums up the current situation. Yesterday she said to the Boston Globe, “The bottom line is this is our government. It needs to be conducted in the light of day and not behind closed doors. We have laws that require it. Apparently, they are being flaunted.”
With enough supporters willing to brave the storm of politics though, we know we can melt those barriers and restore public access in Massachusetts.
Issues: Open Government