Open government — it’s an idea that is hard to argue against.
And it’s true that the traditional proponents of transparency and openness include many of our elected officials.
But as the public is too well aware, there’s a difference between what you preach and what you practice.
In this way, we’re disappointed in Gov. Deval Patrick. While the two-term Democrat has made government accessibility and openness a priority for his administration, there are limits to his actual implementation of those ideals.
And that means being personally exempt from the state’s public records law.
Patrick, like his Republican predecessors, argues that a 1997 Supreme Judicial Court ruling provides the governor’s office with an exclusion to the law. According to an Associated Press story, “The Massachusetts exemption stems in part from a 1997 court ruling, Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council, which asked whether a questionnaire submitted to the council by a judicial applicant is a public record.
“The court found that since the council is an ‘interviewing and screening body whose sole purpose is to assist the governor’ its records are essentially the governor’s records. It went on to conclude that since the state’s public records law doesn’t expressly include the Legislature, judiciary or governor there is ‘no merit’ to the argument that the questionnaire is a public record.”
Where this has become particularly sticky is with electronic communications — emails and the like.
Let’s remember that Mitt Romney, as he was leaving Beacon Hill, decided to clean up the electronic communications of his administration. That meant allowing his departing aides to buy the hard drives from their computers. As a result, there’s no telling what kind of information was wiped away.
We’d like to think that the Patrick administration wouldn’t follow Romney is this way.
And it’s true that a spokesman for the governor’s office said that despite the exemption, Patrick is committed to open government ... “This administration has set an example of making government accessible and accountable to the people of Massachusetts,” Press Secretary Heather Johnson said in a statement. This includes, she says, responding to public information requests.
If the governor is sincere, then he should be willing to support a bill that would improve access to public documents, including the updating of the law to cover electronic documents and make more information available online.
Let’s change the thinking here. Electronic and paper documents should be considered part of the public record and if the administration thinks otherwise, let it make the case before the courts and not the other way around.
The governor and other elected officials are conducting the people’s business, and it should always be done in an open and transparent way.