Outpouring of support in favor of Mass. Public Records Modernization Bills

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BOSTON – May 26, 2015 — Today, Common Cause Massachusetts, as well as dozens of other organizations and individuals, testified before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight in support of two bills proposing to reform the state’s public records law. The legislation, supported by the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance (MassFOIA), of which Common Cause is a convening member, would update the law to reflect advances in technology, reduce fees for access, and provide enforcement mechanisms that would compel agencies to comply with records requests. 

“The public records law is broken,” Common Cause’s Executive Director Pam Wilmot told the committee.  “Rather than being a leader, Massachusetts lags far behind other states in providing prompt and reliable access to public records. That’s not where we should be. As the cradle of liberty, our place is at the forefront of open government. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to get there.”

Forty organizations testified in support of H. 2772 and S. 1676 as part of MassFOIA, including groups focused on health care, the environment, elections, consumer protection, news outlets, civil rights organizations and more. Several reporters also testified in support, including Scott Allen from the Boston Globe Spotlight team.   

State Secretary William Galvin also appeared at the hearing to testify in support of many of the bills’ provisions, especially those relating to increasing enforcement of the law.

H. 2772 and S. 1676, would:

  • Reduce fees by limiting the circumstances in which requesters are charged.
  • Require electronic records be searchable and accessible online.
  • Designate a “records access officer” in government agencies to reduce bureaucratic complexity and assign responsibility.
  • Allows Massachusetts courts to award attorney fees to successful litigants whose records requests were wrongly denied.

Massachusetts, along with South Dakota and Wyoming, are currently the only three states that do not allow for attorney’s fees.

Without an enforcement mechanism, agencies and municipalities can refuse to turn over documents, delay their responses, charge outrageous fees, and excessively redact information, all without any consequences for non-compliance. As a result of this and other deficits, the Massachusetts public records law earned an “F” grade from the Center for Public Integrity.

Those testifying at the hearing made note of many instances where records were wrongly denied or were subject to inordinate fees.  For example, the State Ethics Commission recently proposed charging the Boston Globe $15,000 for access to financial disclosure forms from public officials, claiming the need to redact the forms, despite the fact that the Ethics Statute clearly requires that they are public records and may be viewed for free.  In another instance, the Springfield Police Department demanded an $18,000 payment from the ACLU for records about their SWAT team.

“Government agencies routinely flout the law and deny Massachusetts citizens access to what should be free information,’ said Wilmot. “Citizens without the resources of major media outlets are especially left in the dark, unable to seek recourse. This is why reduced costs, electronic accessibility, increased accountability, and an enforcement mechanism are essential reforms to the law. A functioning public records law is a critical tool for citizens and the media to hold their government accountable.  As it stands, it is all too easily ignored.”