Metro

Galvin planning public records ballot item

Mass. Secretary of State William Galvin.
The Boston Globe
Mass. Secretary of State William Galvin.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Saturday he plans to push for reform of the state’s public records law with a November 2016 ballot initiative asking voters to approve more meaningful penalties for those who flout the rules.

He said he wants to put the issue before voters because lawmakers have failed to act on his previous legislative proposals to change the law.

“I’ve tried directly working with the Legislature and it’s not effective,” he said in a telephone interview. “The only effective way to do this is to propose a ballot initiative.”

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Galvin, who has faced criticism for not adequately enforcing the current law, said he has not drafted the proposal yet, but the measure would likely include penalties for government agencies that violate the law, and cover the legal fees of people who fight for records that they were improperly denied.

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As secretary of state, Galvin oversees the Division of Public Records, which determines the public status of government records and decides on challenges from people who believe government documents were wrongfully withheld.

The office, however, does not have enforcement powers, and refers cases of government agencies deemed to have improperly withheld public records to the state attorney general, Galvin said.

Galvin has acknowledged problems with the law. His own review of the Public Records Division found that the news media companies, lawyers, activists, and others who filed complaints last year got all of the records they requested just 27 percent of the time.

He said he believes voters would embrace efforts to enhance the law’s enforcement mechanisms. Traditional advocates of stronger public records laws are news media organizations, trade unions — which have a financial stake in public contracts — and ardent government observers, he said.

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During his reelection campaign last year, Galvin said, he was quizzed on the issue by editorial boards.

“I believe if it’s properly constructed, the public would be open to this,” Galvin said. “I can’t imagine that there would be people opposed to it.”

Galvin is more cautious about whether he would consider proposing changes to exceptions that allow documents to be withheld.

He said he does not support making all information on government records public, especially given the volume of personal information that state agencies collect from private citizens, including Social Security numbers, unlisted telephone numbers, and dates of birth.

“Is that something everybody should get access to? Telemarketers and everybody else? I think not,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful. That’s why I’m emphasizing personal privacy issues. You don’t want somebody or some group to say ‘My personal privacy is going to be violated by this.’ ”

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Galvin said he would consider requiring police agencies to release law enforcement records that identify officers who face criminal charges.

In several recent decisions issued after the Globe challenged the refusal of several law enforcement agencies to release records, Galvin’s office ruled that they have the authority to decide what to make public and what can be kept secret in documents related to criminal charges. Among the rulings: Boston police had the authority to withhold the names of five officers caught drunken driving, and State Police could keep secret a report on an officer who was arrested.

“Whether we should create a new category related to these police reports if they in fact involve police officers, it’s certainly worthy of review and discussion,” Galvin said.

Galvin indicated his interest in pursuing the ballot initiative in a column by Thomas Farragher in Saturday’s Globe.

This is the first time Galvin has decided to organize a ballot initiative since he became secretary of state in 1995. He said his office, which also oversees elections and voting, is researching whether he would have to recuse himself from parts of the process.

The deadline for submitting the text of the proposed law and the signatures of 10 voters is Aug. 5. If the proposal is approved by the attorney general, Galvin would then have to collect signatures from 64,750 voters to have the measure qualify for the ballot. The Legislature would have a chance to take an up or down vote on the proposal, but could not amend it, Galvin said.

The pressure of a pending ballot initiative might compel legislators to take action on their own, he said. Still, Galvin said, he does not believe he needs legislative support to get voters to approve the measure.

“Most lawmakers are not interested,” he said.

Some advocates, however, said the Legislature offers the best chance of updating the law. Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said a ballot initiative would be a challenge.

“There isn’t a big constituency for open government. I think a lot of citizens don’t understand why it’s important until they have a particular case, until they can’t get the information,” he said. “I think it would take a lot of public education.”

Governor Charlie Baker, a ballot initiative supporter, “appreciates the intent” of Galvin’s plan and looks forward to reviewing the details, spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton said in a statement.

A spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he is looking forward to meeting with state Representative Peter V. Kocot, who cochairs a legislative committee considering bills concerning the public records law.

“The question of access to public records in the Commonwealth is one that merits serious consideration,” spokesman Seth Gitell said.

Kocot, a Northampton Democrat, and state Senator Jason M. Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, have written measures that would call for more electronic access to records, require agencies to pay legal fees when they wrongfully withhold records, lower costs agencies can charge for records, and direct agencies to assign a staff member to handle records requests.

Kocot’s version of the bill has more than 40 cosponsors, according to listing of supporters posted on a state website.

Lewis said he hopes Galvin will come out in support of the plan.

“I’m optimistic that this session we could really enact these reforms,” Lewis said. “I’m hopeful that this could be the time for updating our public records law.”

Reform advocates want lawmakers to act this week in conjunction with Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open government that begins Sunday.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said problems with public records law go beyond the enforcement issues Galvin hopes to address.

“The amount of secrecy in Massachusetts relative to other states is really astounding,” she said. “The fact that our public records law is so broken is really an embarrassment, and needs to be fixed immediately.”

Jim O’Sullivan of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jennifer Smith contributed to this report. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@ globe.com.