Massachusetts officialdom is especially, egregiously opaque.
The Legislature, the judiciary, and the governor’s office all claim to be exempt from public records law — earning the state failing grade after failing grade on national transparency report cards. Lawmakers have repeatedly brushed aside reform efforts — none too interested, it seems, in opening up their deliberations to greater scrutiny.
But now, Secretary of State Bill Galvin is taking a new approach — pushing legislation that would make the governor’s office, in particular, subject to public records law. He’s betting that lawmakers will be more open to change if it doesn’t affect them. He may not get very far; exposing the governor’s office to more sunlight would certainly ratchet up the pressure on the Legislature to open its own heavy curtains. But it’s a worthy effort nonetheless.
If nothing else, Galvin has inserted the issue into the governor’s race, with two of the major Democratic candidates, Attorney General Maura Healey and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, and both of the leading Republicans, former state representative Geoff Diehl and businessman Chris Doughty, making clear calls for greater transparency for the governor’s office.
Galvin, no doubt, sees some political advantage of his own in making a high-profile, good-government pitch; he’s running for a record eighth term this fall and has a serious competitor in Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch.
But whatever the politics, he has focused attention on a problem that needs fixing.
The courts have found that, because the state’s public records law doesn’t make explicit mention of the Legislature, judiciary, and governor’s office, it doesn’t apply to those entities. The governor’s office has leaned on one case in particular, Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council, in which the state’s Supreme Judicial Court found that a questionnaire submitted to the administration of then-Governor William Weld by an applicant for a judicial appointment was not public record.
Since that 1997 ruling, governors have released records on a case-by-case basis — withholding what they like and citing Lambert when they do.
Whether Lambert should allow for that sort of wide-ranging denial of public records requests is a matter of interpretation; Galvin is among those who say the governor’s office has made too-broad use of the decision.
But no matter, the state’s top elected official has managed to keep the public in the dark about too much for too long. And Massachusetts is an outlier in that regard. Only one other state, Michigan, appears to offer such weak access to a governor’s office records.
If Galvin’s bill passes, the governor’s office would still enjoy the exemptions afforded other state agencies. It wouldn’t have to release medical records, for instance, or memorandums written during the development of public policy. But it would have to provide a greater window into its decisions on the most pressing issues of the day — be it pandemic policy or the overhaul of the state’s tax code.
More transparency means more accountability. And that makes for a better government.
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