Reinforce public’s right to know

Reinforce public's right to know

(This piece was published as an op-ed in the Boston Herald on March 22, 2014.)

Freedom of information is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, energizing and strengthening the relationship between our government and its citizens. The better we understand the workings of our government, the more we can participate in public life, help set priorities, and hold our government accountable for its actions.

We are lucky to live in a country that aspires to openness and transparency, however imperfect the reality. And we are even more fortunate to live in a commonwealth that is poised to better perfect it. Last week, the state Legislature’s Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight advanced a bill to reform our public records law and make it stronger.

Today, unfortunately, even when information is supposed to be public, members of the public often face major obstacles to obtaining it. Agencies don’t always treat records requests seriously, knowing they will likely face no consequences for withholding information. And when they do respond, the law allows them to charge an arm and a leg for copies and basic information.

We’ve made great strides with the online open checkbook system that gives engaged Massachusetts residents a window into state spending, but there’s more to government than the budget. The public records law is meant to enable people to learn how executive agencies and municipalities spend their time and energy, not just their money.

The Legislature is considering a comprehensive proposal that would streamline interactions between record-keepers and people making requests, rationalize and reduce the cost of accessing public information, promote the sharing of information in electronic rather than paper form, and incentivize government agencies to embrace the presumption of openness at the heart of a law that hasn’t been meaningfully updated since the mid-1970s. It would put teeth into the law by directing courts to award attorney’s fees to those who have been wrongly denied public records. This has worked well in more than 40 other states and also under the federal Freedom of Information Act and will help ensure compliance here in Massachusetts too.

The bill would also establish a commission to identify ways to increase information about the legislative process and make it more accessible and meaningful to the general public.

Making the work of the state Legislature clearer to ordinary Massachusetts residents is always a good idea. We would like to see the Legislature provide notice of public hearings further in advance, make the proceedings of legislative committees accessible online, produce substantive committee reports, and make it simple to find out how legislators vote on the floor and at the committee level on issues of public concern.

The Legislature should seize this opportunity to advance freedom of information in the 21st century by enacting this bill sponsored by state Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Florence). Now is the time to update our public records law and rededicate ourselves to openness and transparency at all levels of government.

Massachusetts started this experiment in democracy and our heritage calls on us to renew and reinvigorate it today.

Gavi Wolfe is legislative counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts. Pam Wilmot is executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

See More: Voting & Elections