Open Government Groups Encouraged by House Public Records Legislation, Call it a Step in the Right Direction
- pam wilmot
BOSTON—November 18, 2015—With legislation intended to reform the Massachusetts public records law headed to a vote today on Beacon Hill, open government groups are calling for passage in the House. The new bill released by the House Ways and Means Committee is the product of months of political wrangling, including significant lobbying by the Massachusetts Municipal Association and others who opposed many of the reforms advocacy groups sought. The proposed legislation would give courts the ability to enforce the law by awarding attorney fees, which would bring Massachusetts in line with forty-seven other states, and it would set some limits on how much government agencies can charge for public record information. The bill falls short of cost containment reforms proposed by advocates, however, and would exempt municipalities from some measures that would apply only to state agencies.
“It’s an important step in the right direction,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The bill contains some much-needed reforms, especially attorney fees, and it begins to rein in the kind of outrageous costs we’ve seen agencies charge people for basic information. We have real concerns about some elements, and we hope to see significant improvements before it gets to the Governor’s desk, but this represents a step forward. We are urging House members to support the bill.”
By taking up this legislation, the legislature is responding to widespread criticism that the Massachusetts public records law is among the weakest in the country and routinely flouted by public officials. Less than two weeks ago, the Center for Public Integrity released a report that gave the commonwealth an F grade on public access to government information for the second time in a row.
“We’re glad that the House is taking this up,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Speaker DeLeo deserves a lot of credit for championing the bill and for ensuring that we are moving towards greater transparency. His leadership has been critical to the many important reforms in the bill that will help citizens hold government accountable. That said, the Massachusetts public records law is one of the worst in the country and we will continue to fight for more reforms as we move through the legislative process.”
Dozens of organizations have advocated for comprehensive public records law reform this year, contending that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.
“This is an important step in the legislative process and the bill contains some very good elements,” said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Even so, it is not yet the reform that we ultimately need to achieve the promise of affordable, accountable access to public information in Massachusetts. We hope the House will move it forward and the Senate will make improvements, so journalists and concerned citizens alike can truly exercise their right to know.”
“The bill includes some notable improvements from our current law, but we still have a long way to go,” said Justin Silverman from the New England First Amendment Coalition. “While the legislation provides helpful tools such as an attorney’s fee provision and a Records Access Officer, it also provides custodians with more time to respond to requests and opportunities to defer costs to the requester. It’s a start.”
The proposed legislation would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law, strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement, and make other changes.
Specifically, the legislation would:
- Allow courts to award attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied.
- Lower copying costs and only allow charges for staff time after a few initial hours of work (4 hours for state agencies; 2 hours for municipalities).
- Limit hourly charges for state agencies to $25/hour, following the lead of guidance Governor Baker issued to his secretariats in July.
- Extend the time for compliance. Currently, the law allows 10 days for compliance, but that deadline is routinely ignored. The proposed legislation would require agencies, if they are unable to fully comply within 10 days, to provide an estimate of the time they will require to fully comply (up to 60 days for state agencies or 75 days for municipalities), explain the reasons additional time is needed, provide a fee estimate, and petition to the supervisor of public records if an extension is needed.
- Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
- Require agencies to make electronic documents available in electronic form, and require state agencies to post common public records online.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Gavi Wolfe, Legislative Counsel
American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
(617) 482-3170 x340; firstname.lastname@example.org
Pam Wilmot, Executive Director
Common Cause Massachusetts
(617) 962-0034; email@example.com
Robert J. Ambrogi, Executive Director
Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association
(978) 309-9188; firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Silverman, Executive Director
New England First Amendment Coalition
(774) 244-2365; email@example.com