Over the next week, leading right up to the Massachusetts Legislature’s August recess, we’re publishing a piece every day in a blog series highlighting “fast facts” about the failings of our state’s public records law. It is our hope to keep the story focused on why action needs to be taken as soon as possible and to urge a vote on Bill H. 3665, an act to improve public records, in both the State House of Representatives and Senate before they leave Beacon Hill for a month, or right away when they return. To read the full series and more from this campaign, go here. To petition your legislator in support, act here!
Here is “Fast Fact” #4:
The Massachusetts public records law currently allows agencies and municipalities to charge simply outrageous fees for access to documents. While freedom of information doesn’t necessarily mean there should be no fees, the cost of records should never be so large as to be a barrier to access.
Here are three examples:
- When Thomas Workman, a Taunton attorney who frequently testifies as an expert witness in drunken driving cases, requested access to breathalyzer records in Massachusetts, he was asked for $2.7 million dollars. The State Police later did admit this figure was incorrect – they decided it should have been “only” $1.2 million! Both figures are out of control. Workman reports that the same data is free in Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington, as well as only $75 in Wisconsin.
- When Barry Rafkind, the volunteer editor of a Somerville news blog, sent a detailed request to his city officials for information about parking tickets and the city’s responses to citizen complaints, they said those records would cost him more than $200,000—way more than necessary!
- In 2013, the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services demanded $70,000 for records showing how many newly-hired state employees had immediate relatives on the state payroll. Requiring new hires to fill out “sunshine disclosures” is supposed to limit nepotism in state government, but there can be no accountability if it is too expensive for anyone to actually review the records.
Regular citizens should be able to afford a look at what government is doing. The reform bill under consideration now, H. 3665, would decrease copying costs and eliminate hefty fees for redacting information. These measures will promote affordable access for journalists, citizens, and all those with a need-and right-to know what government is doing.