Metro

Lobbying picks up on proposed public records law

A group that represents Massachusetts cities and towns is mounting a campaign to defeat a proposal to strengthen the notoriously weak Massachusetts public records law for the first time in more than four decades, saying communities can’t afford to pay for the changes.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association sent out an e-mail blast last week urging local officials to bombard Beacon Hill with objections to the bill.

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“This bill is deeply flawed,” Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the lobbying group, told the Globe. “It would impose costly new unfunded mandates and burdens on cash-strapped cities and towns.”

In a sign the battle is heating up, several groups that support greater government transparency struck back Monday with their own calls to contact lawmakers in defense of the public records bill.

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“Public records bill under attack! Help!” pleaded one e-mail from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Another from the New England First Amendment Coalition warned: “Legislation to improve access to Information at Risk.”

The bill is designed to reduce the cost for citizens to obtain documents while making it easier for them to get records in electronic form.

The e-mail volley came a day after the Globe reported data showing Massachusetts has one of the weakest public records laws in the country. State and local agencies often take months to respond to requests, deny them altogether, or demand outlandish fees, including $2.7 million that State Police demanded for a database on breathalyzer results. Several states provided the information for free or a nominal fee.

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Though public records advocates have pushed for years to update the law, the efforts appear to finally have enough support to pass this year.

Roughly one-fourth of lawmakers have written or cosponsored legislation to strengthen the law. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo recently said the law should be modernized. And, after a joint committee endorsed a bill to upgrade the law, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg tweeted that the move is “long overdue.”

The bill is being reviewed by the House Ways and Means committee and could potentially be voted on by the full House as early as next week. Governor Charlie Baker has not taken a position on the bill, but other Beacon Hill officials have voiced support.

“The time has come to modernize and improve our public records system in Massachusetts,” said Attorney General Maura Healey in a statement Monday. “Massachusetts leads on so many important issues, and transparency in government should be one of them.”

But some public records advocates expressed concern Monday about the fate of the bill after the Massachusetts Municipal Association objected to the cost of complying with virtually every major aspect of the proposal — from limits on fees to fines for agencies that don’t comply.

For instance, the bill would bar agencies from charging to locate and redact documents, except in exceptional circumstances. And it would give citizens the right to recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records.

“Bill Would Impose New Burdens and Unfunded Mandates on Communities,” read an e-mail from the association late last week. “Call Your Representatives and Senators Today!!”

‘Nearly every one of their objections is either inaccurate or wildly inaccurate.’

Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts executive director 
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Proponents responded with an e-mail rebutting the complaints. They noted that 47 other states already award attorneys’ fees and said some of the provisions — such as requiring agencies to designate a point person for handling public records requests — shouldn’t cost any money.

“Nearly every one of their objections is either inaccurate or wildly inaccurate,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, one of 40 groups supporting the legislation.

It is likely that lawmakers will make at least some changes to address concerns.

Representative Peter Kocot, a Northampton Democrat, who authored the public records legislation, said he is happy to work with the Massachusetts Municipal Association to “perfect the bill as long as it promotes the public’s access to public records.”

And Beckwith said it is possible some of the complaints could be addressed by a minor wording change, such as clarifying what agencies must do to satisfy the 15-day deadline for responding to requests, though he had deeper concerns about some other provisions.

Senator Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who sponsored a similar measure in the Senate, said he still believes the bill is likely to be approved with some modifications. “I would hope that everyone could agree that the public records law in Massachusetts is seriously out of date and in need of being reformed,” Lewis said.

The legislation will not address one of the biggest complaints about the current law: that there are too many exceptions that allow agencies to withhold information. Massachusetts is the only state where the judicial branch, Legislature, and governor’s office all assert they are exempt from the law. And even when agencies are covered, many records are excluded. For instance, Massachusetts is the only state where jails can withhold records of the people they lock up.

Lewis said he hopes the Legislature will create a commission to study the exemptions and deal with them in a separate bill later on. “This is phase one of the reform bill,” he said.

In the meantime, Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he plans to move forward with his own ballot initiative to overhaul the public records law in case the Legislature doesn’t act.

Galvin said he needs to meet an Aug. 5 deadline to file the wording for the initiative, the first of many steps in putting an item on the ballot. But Galvin would still have nearly a year to cancel the effort if the Legislature approves a bill.

“My preference is for the Legislature to do it,” Galvin said, adding that he hopes the prospect of a ballot initiative will help push lawmakers to act. “There is reason for optimism, but there is also some reason for concern.”

David Scharfenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.
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