Newly elected Attorney General Maura Healey said this week she’s optimistic she can give the public greater access to government records by resolving a longstanding rift between her office and the secretary of state’s.
That friction has effectively blocked the state from enforcing the law intended to give the public access to government records for the past five years.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin stopped asking Healey’s predecessor, Martha Coakley, to sue agencies that refused to comply with his office’s orders to release records in 2010. His spokesman said Galvin and his deputies believed it was a waste of time because Coakley and her predecessors often refused to enforce the orders.
Now Healey, who took office in January, says it’s time the two offices worked together to make sure agencies comply with the law.
“My job as attorney general is to make sure the public records law is enforced aggressively,” Healey said in a Globe interview.
Advocates for government transparency praised Healey’s commitment, saying the failure to enforce the law for years has made Massachusetts’ relatively weak public records law even weaker by allowing government officials to keep records secret with little fear of consequences.
“I would commend any effort between the two offices to work together more collaboratively to enforce the public records law,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Given that there has been so little cooperation between them, any effort would be a benefit to the public.”
The problem arose partly because of a quirk in the Massachusetts public records law. The secretary of state’s office is charged with deciding whether records are public when citizens appeal. But that law doesn’t give him the authority to go to court when agencies refuse to abide by the decisions. That’s up to the attorney general.
But Coakley and her predecessors sometimes disagreed with Galvin’s rulings and refused to enforce the decisions.
Out of frustration, Galvin’s office stopped referring orders to the attorney general altogether years ago.
“The problem with references to the attorney general is they went nowhere,” Galvin explained in an interview Wednesday night with WGBH’s “Greater Boston.” “Very often, the attorneys general had higher priorities.”
When Coakley was in office, her aides acknowledged they didn’t always agree with Galvin’s rulings, but insisted enforcing the public records law was a priority.
Since then, Galvin has left it up to journalists, lawyers, and others who request government records to go to court to fight for the records, a process that can take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Watchdogs said regular citizens, who couldn’t afford to sue, had no way to force agencies to turn over records.
But Healey said she believes she can correct that problem. She said she’s already personally talked with Galvin and her deputy has met with Galvin’s to figure out how the offices can work together to enforce the public records law.
“It’s really important to me that they understand that we are here and we are happy to take referrals from the secretary of state’s office,” Healey said.
Galvin’s spokesman, Brian McNiff, said it’s possible the secretary of state’s office could resume sending orders to the attorney general for enforcement if future discussions go well.
“Refusal to comply with the [secretary of state’s] order to provide public records is a serious matter, and referral to the attorney general for prompt enforcement can be an effective remedy,” McNiff said.
But, even if the offices mend their differences, Ambrogi called it “only a temporary fix to a deeper problem” with the law itself.
“The way the system is set up is flawed,” Ambrogi said. “For the law to have teeth, the two functions of investigation and enforcement should be consolidated in a single department or agency.” Otherwise, he added, there’s nothing to prevent a future breakdown in enforcement when the offices don’t agree.
Healey’s pledge to aggressively enforce the law comes at a time when government watchdogs and media organizations are expressing growing frustration with the state of the Massachusetts public records law. The law contains dozens of exemptions and no statutory penalties for violating the law. The Legislature and courts are exempt from the law altogether.
And in a series of rulings in the past month, the secretary of state’s office further reduced the public’s ability to get records, ruling that police departments have the power to withhold basic criminal records, including arrest reports and mug shots for their own officers caught breaking the law.
Lawmakers have filed several bills and Galvin has proposed a ballot measure to strengthen the law, which was originally written decades ago and been gradually watered down with exemptions over the years.
Healey said she believes the law needs to be updated, and the Legislature should no longer be completely exempted from the requirement to release its records. She said she hasn’t had a chance to review the proposals by Galvin or state lawmakers.
“There are certainly things that need to be modernized and improved,” she said. “We should always be looking at ways to do things better.”
But even as Healey’s office pledges to make more records public, it also continues to defend some state agencies that have refused to release records.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources last October to obtain the names of organizations, such as hospitals or zoos, that bought and sold primates imported into Massachusetts in 2013.
An attorney representing PETA said the attorney general’s office resisted PETA’s effort to depose witnesses to learn why the state wants to withhold the records.
“This is not an auspicious beginning” for the new attorney general, said the lawyer, Martina Bernstein.
Separately, the attorney general is defending the Department of Public Health in a lawsuit filed by the Globe that seeks access to the state’s index of births and marriages. The agency allows the public to view the list at its offices during limited hours for $9 an hour but has refused the Globe’s request to provide the data in electronic form.
Healey declined to say whether she would continue defending the agencies or attempt to resolve the suits, noting that the cases are in litigation.
More generally, Healey said she understands there are times when agencies have to withhold records but added: “My operating principle is one of transparency.”