Despite reforms, Mass. still lags on public records

There is no way to know the full extent of the e-mails that have flowed between Governor Baker’s administration, the Keolis commuter rail company, and a local consulting firm. And, thus, there is no way for the public to assess just how much influence the firm, Keyser Public Strategies, has had on government policies, contracts, or a myriad of other issues.

That’s because Baker’s administration, in keeping with longstanding policy, maintains that the governor’s office is not subject to the state’s open records law. So when Globe reporters recently sought e-mails that would shed light on the correspondence and any potential conflicts of interest, the results were not exactly awash in sunlight. In fact, the governor’s deputy chief legal counsel, Cathy Judd-Stein, warned in a letter that “certain responsive documents have been withheld or redacted” because the “Office of the Governor is not . . . subject to disclosure under the public records law.”

The Legislature passed a much-heralded update to the state’s weak public records law last summer, which Baker promptly signed. But the governor’s limited response to the public records request shows that troubling loopholes remain. The executive branch, the Legislature, and the judiciary are all still exempt from public records requests — a shameful trifecta of exceptions found in no other state in the country.


The good news is that the new public records law, which takes effect in January, includes language establishing a special commission to study those exemptions. The 14-member commission, whose members will be appointed by legislative leaders, should solicit input from a variety of organizations, and from other states, to expand their focus.

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The status quo assumes every single document these three branches touch or produce to be confidential. It’s true that under certain circumstances records should be kept secret — those pertaining to criminal investigations, for instance, or those clearly involving personal privacy. But the default assumption should be that the public has a right to see documents that reveal how all branches of government are conducting business.

Disclosing the governor’s daily calendar and who he is meeting, for instance, absolutely serves the public interest. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s office abides by this rule at City Hall, where the e-mails and personal schedules of Walsh and his top staff are public. Why shouldn’t the same standard apply to the executive office and the State House? As governor, Baker has budgetary duties that include allocating millions and millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money. The taxpayers have a right to know how those decisions are made.

The commission, which is due to release its findings a year from now, shouldn’t waste the opportunity to address all three major exemptions in the public records law.