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THOMAS FARRAGHER

Bill Galvin should worry about public records, not primary funding

The Massachusetts open records law has been weakened by decisions made by Secretary of State William Galvin, writes Thomas Farragher.
The Massachusetts open records law has been weakened by decisions made by Secretary of State William Galvin, writes Thomas Farragher.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2013)

Gee, I almost wanted to send Secretary of State Bill Galvin a comfort-food casserole or a Vermont Teddy Bear this week when I read about our mean ol’ governor’s plan to wipe out our state’s presidential primary next year.

What a joke. His chances of being stiffed on the funds to pay for the March 2016 primary are about as great as the chances that Boston College will present Galvin, a Brighton resident and arch-critic of BC’s expansion plans, with the Neighbor of the Year Award.

Galvin’s primary funding fear is a phony controversy and a diversion. While he was whining about this nonissue, he should have been paying attention to something that threatens to become the dubious legacy of his 20 years as a constitutional officer of the Commonwealth.

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The Massachusetts open records law is in tatters. One of the weakest in the nation, it’s even weaker now that Galvin’s office has decided that — unlike in most states — we are not entitled to basic public records, such as mug shots and police reports.

It’s a decision that should take your breath away except that, under Galvin, the wall around our public records has gradually grown higher. And, just like the complacent frog being slowly boiled alive, the latest outrage raised no ruckus.

“We have one of the most archaic public records laws in the country,’’ said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publisher Association. “Galvin has been secretary for a long time. The buck stops at his desk.’’

I’ll say this about Galvin: He’s no Harry Truman. The buck, he insisted, stops at the desk of some faceless functionary who reports to him.

Galvin and I had a long telephone chat this week that was, in the lexicon of the State Department, frank, fruitful, and animated.

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I told him his performance on making sure the public has access to its own records has been miserable. He told me I was full of baloney.

Here is the public records landscape over which Galvin presides: The Legislature is one of seven in the United States that has completely exempted itself from the public records law. It is one of four that does not allow plaintiffs who sue to collect legal fees when they go to court to get records they were entitled to in the first place.

Even Galvin concedes that the enforcement of the public records law has been toothless, allowing violators to thumb their noses at the public with impunity. He has stopped even asking the attorney general’s office to enforce orders to release documents. An internal Galvin review found that those who file complaints about public access got all the records they were seeking just 27 percent of the time.

You probably don’t care much about that unless some day you wake up to find college kids illegally crammed into an attic next door or you suspect that judges are letting drunk drivers get off at astonishing rates or you’re unfairly charged with a crime, and when you demand to see the records, there are none or you get this answer: Buzz off.

The Legislature and the judiciary have exempted themselves from sunshine laws and therefore they are no forum for reform. “They’re not inclined to do anything so we have to find a better way,’’ Galvin said.

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Galvin’s plan is to place a measure before voters on the November 2016 ballot. It would restore teeth to the law, perhaps establishing a dedicated office with the attorney general to enforce the often-ignored statute and to grant legal fees to those who sue and win.

“I want to fix the public records law,’’ he said. “I know how to do it. Enforcement is the first issue.’’

Galvin has been around state politics since his 20s. When he was a state representative he earned the nickname “Prince of Darkness” for his dour visage and Machiavellian political skills.

If he doesn’t succeed in saving the public’s access to the public’s records, that nickname will denote something even more chilling: The name for the man at the helm when the lights went out on the public’s right to know.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.