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Voters may have a say on boosting public records access

Secretary of State William Galvin.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff/File

Secretary of State William F. Galvin made good on his promise Monday to file a ballot initiative to strengthen the state’s public records law, which is widely considered to be one of the weakest in the country.

Galvin submitted the petition with the initial 10 required signatures to Attorney General Maura Healey, the first step needed to put the item on the November 2016 ballot. Healey must now rule whether the proposal is constitutional. And if it is, Galvin must collect 64,750 signatures by Nov. 28 and another 10,792 by July 6.

Galvin has repeatedly said that he would prefer the Legislature act to strengthen the public records law on its own and plans to withdraw his ballot initiative later if the Legislature eventually takes action.

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“The best solution would be if the Legislature acts very promptly,” Galvin said. But if it doesn’t, he said his ballot initiative will help bolster the law.

Galvin’s ballot proposal would reduce the cost of black and white copies to 15 cents per page, allow citizens to recoup their attorneys’ fees if the court determines that the agency withheld documents “in bad faith,” and allow the court to fine officials up to $1,000 for improperly denying records.

A legislative committee has already approved a bill by Representative Peter Kocot, Democrat of Northampton, to strengthen the records law, and several top leaders, including the governor, Senate president, House speaker, and attorney general, have endorsed the idea of updating the law.

The bill has faced resistance from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a lobbying group representing cities and towns, who feared it could be too costly to implement. But Geoffrey Beckwith, the group’s executive director, said Monday he is increasingly confident that the Legislature can address his group’s concerns by modifying the bill, which could be voted on as soon as next month.

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Neither Kocot’s legislation nor Galvin’s initiative would eliminate the litany of exceptions to the law or extend the law to cover the courts, Legislature, or governor’s office. Massachusetts is currently the only state where all three bodies claim to be completely exempt from the public records law.

Galvin’s petition also contains fewer provisions than Kocot’s bill, which would also require agencies to publicly designate someone to handle public records requests so citizens would know whom to contact and to post frequently requested documents online to minimize duplicate requests.

But Galvin said it was important to simplify the petitionlanguage to minimize potential opposition and avoid legal challenges. “I didn’t want to create any constitutional issues.”

Some records advocates said Monday they would prefer the Legislature change the law.

“While I am glad to see that Secretary Galvin understands the critical need for public records reform, I do not believe that an initiative petition is the best route to bring it about,” said Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the state Newspaper Publishers Association.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said it’s possible the ballot measure could prod the Legislature to act. But Wilmot said she wishes Galvin had worked with Common Cause and other open government groups, who have been pushing for the legislation, to refine the wording of the initiative.

Galvin said his initiative would not solve all the problems with the law but said it will help make sure officials comply with the rules.

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“The principal thing for me is enforcement,” Galvin said.


Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.