Public Records Reform is Long Overdue
Below is a copy of a letter Common Cause wrote with its partners in the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance in support of H.3665, an act to improve public records.We are hand delivering it alongside a copy of this recent Boston Globe expose on our broken public records system to every legislator at the Massachusetts State House.
SUPPORT PUBLIC RECORDS REFORM
H.3665 is a good and balanced bill. It is long overdue.
Over the past few days you’ve no doubt heard from the Massachusetts Municipal Association about proposed changes to the public records law recently advanced by the State Administration Committee. Many of its claims are inaccurate or wildly exaggerated. A few may have a kernel of merit and we would be pleased to discuss them further.
As members of the steering committee of a coalition of 40 diverse organizations that advocate for civil rights, the environment, good government, consumer protection, legal services, and the media, we believe that H.3665 is a good and balanced bill. It accomplishes the goals of updating and improving our public records law, which is widely regarded as among the weakest in the country, while while expanding the time allowed to respond to public records requests.
Changes to the Massachusetts public records law are critical because too many agencies and municipalities have been ignoring the law for many years. Some even flout the law openly by telling reporters and citizens that they do not have to comply because there are no consequences for inaction. In addition, excessive and outrageous charges have been frequently used to avoid compliance. While there have certainly been good actors, the excessive number of bad actors at both the state and municipal level have poisoned the well. Because they have exploited every potential loophole in the law, the reforms in H.3665 are critically important.
The impact of our broken public records law isn’t just born by the media and the general public, but also by individual citizens who have suffered significant harm—instances include a family that could not get the name of the snow plow company that hit their car, a woman who lost her house because the town would not turn over documents relating to a sewer assessment (eventually the assessment was found to be inaccurate, but too late for the family), and a female attorney subjected to invasive bodily searches when visiting a client in prison who was charged thousands of dollars when she tried to find out if other women had had the same experience and registered complaints.
Effective public records laws, along with the First Amendment, are the most significant pillars of democracy, necessary to protect our most basic rights and freedoms. Access to public records is necessary to ensure that the laws you pass are being executed fully and fairly. Without access, there is no way to assess whether the laws of the Commonwealth are working or being flouted.
Change is never easy, and we have heard claims in the past that the sky is falling. In fact, there is very little in the bill that adds to the responsibilities of municipalities, and nothing at all that changes what information has to be made public. Instead, the bill aims to ensure compliance with the law’s existing requirements. Nothing in the bill is novel. Most provisions have been adopted in many if not virtually all other states and by the federal government. Other states are able to function quite well and have not been unduly burdened. Neither will Massachusetts.
Please take a stand for democracy and the rule of law by supporting H.3665.
Gavi Wolfe, ACLU of Massachusetts
Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts
Bob Ambrogi, MA Newspaper Publishers Association
Justin Silverman, New England First Amendment Coalition