The following is a piece from Common Cause Massachusetts summer intern, Maria Hardiman, reflecting on her experience at the May 26th, 2015 public records reform hearing in Massachusetts. Read our Executive Director's testimony here and sign the petition here.
The public records reform hearing took place in a crowded basement room. Elected officials lined the back walls alongside government watchdogs, reflecting the broad impact of the proposed bills. It was warm, but not uncomfortable. The occasional click of professional cameras and the quiet chatter of friendly activists filled the room with a familiar energy I felt at the municipal and federal levels in the past.
The reddest of tape prevents journalists, activists, and concerned citizens from accessing otherwise public records, quashing the very vigilance that keeps our form of government honest and efficient. Charges in the tens of thousands are hilariously sent to amateur bloggers for collections of emails they wish to review. Massachusetts is one of three states with a weak enforcement mechanism. Officials are free to put public records requests on the backburner—a dangerous downgrade for such a fundamental issue.
Not surprisingly, the hearing lasted several hours. And, I must admit, I stayed only for the first two. But in that time, I saw a cast of characters pass before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. The hearing began with State Secretary Galvin, who vowed to put the issue on the ballot if the legislature did not act. House reps followed, shining a light on the exorbitant fees saddled on their constituents upon requesting records.
Then came the advocates. Groups like our own joined forces with watchdogs and newspapers to form the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance and lead the fight for public records reform. Our Executive Director Pam Wilmot spoke alongside the ACLU and the League of Women Voters, reminding us that an issue as unglamorous as public records reform is critical and “The very fate our democracy depends on it.”
This was my first hearing as an intern for Common Cause MA. It was fascinating to see the issue framed in so many different ways. Environmental organizations worried about the health of citizens. Journalists maintained their crucial role in checking government overreach. To me, the most compelling arguments were from a social justice lens. Pro-choice groups warned of impending restrictions on women’s health care that go unnoticed by the public. Criminal justice reform advocates harkened to the revelation of injustice in Ferguson and Baltimore. The public records reform hearing reminded me of why I stand with Common Cause. Too often we think of democracy reforms in the abstract. Restrictions on voting rights, campaign finance deregulation, and a closed government often hurt women and people of color the most. It is important to keep government open, so a wide variety of people may take part in it, like at our humble hearing.
Many more testified before the Committee. The overwhelming support for public records reform was palpable in Room B1 of the Massachusetts State House. I left the hearing energized and hopeful. I look forward to seeing the legislature heed the calls of Common Cause and its many partners and pass long-overdue public records reform.