Editorial: Strong open records bill emerges from Senate

Last modified: 2/8/2016 1:37:14 PM
Understanding government and being actively engaged as a citizen are dependent upon an ability to get information.

That’s why a strong open records law is a critical tool in keeping citizens informed particularly on how government performs the people’s business. In Massachusetts, however, people inside and outside of state government have declared that our public records law is broken.

Last week, however, the state Senate took a serious step in trying not only to update the laws — an effort that has not happened in more than four decades — but also to make sure it’s not just a toothless exercise masquerading as legislative action. The bill coming out of the Ways and Means Committee looks to address a number of flaws in what exists on the books as well as bring the state forward with online capabilities. And it is a stronger bill than what the House proposed last year.

The Senate’s version would, for example, bring Massachusetts in line with 47 other states and the federal government in allowing citizens to get back legal fees if forced to go the legal route in obtaining documents. It would also establish limits for the amounts of money that could be charged for public records information, reducing the amount charged per page to 5 cents, waiving a charge for the first hours of labor associated with requests and capping the hourly amount state agencies could charge to $25. This cap would also be applied to municipal governments, unless the secretary of state has OK’d a higher rate.

Another step would be having public records that exist in electronic form, like emails and spreadsheets, be made available electronically and not as a printout. That should be more cost effective and convenient.

And speaking of timeliness, the bill does set a timetable for meeting requests. As now, agencies would be required to respond within 10 days. After that those agencies would be expected to fully comply within 15 days to 30 days depending upon the complexity of the request. And there would be an option to seek a 30-day extension. This is better than the House version where state agencies would get 60 days and municipalities 75. Given that the existing 10-day timetable is often ignored, the Senate appears to be trying to find a realistic timetable that can be enforced. As state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said, “There is no point in having a public records law if people cannot get timely access to the records they need.”

Reaction from the media, legal and public advocacy groups had plenty of praise for what the Senate has done.

“This Senate bill will help restore respectability to our public records law,” said Justin Silverman from the New England First Amendment Coalition. “It will make it easier for residents to obtain information in a timely, cost-efficient way. It will provide recourse for those who are unjustly denied information and help keep communities informed. This legislation is a big step toward returning transparency to Massachusetts.”

“The Senate bill is very strong,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “It will accomplish the goals we have been fighting for such as reining in outrageous charges for public records and putting needed teeth into enforcement of the law. If passed as is, Massachusetts will no longer have one of the worst public records laws in the country.”

Passage might be a stumbling block. It still has to go through a full Senate vote and then, if approved, on to a joint committee for reconciliation. We would like to think, however, that both legislative chambers would recognize the importance of putting the public’s interests first to ensure an open and transparent government and vote the Senate bill through.

The public will see.


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