Advocates and elected officials pressed for a stronger state public records law Tuesday, telling stories of roadblocks to getting basic public information and arguing that an opaque government is at odds with the essence of democracy.
Massachusetts is widely seen as having one of the weakest public records laws in the country. At a State House hearing, a wide variety of public officials, journalists, and representatives of good-government groups spoke in favor of legislation that would update the law and give it some teeth.
Similar efforts have fallen short in the past, and there is no guarantee the proposals will move forward.
Tom Duggan, publisher of the North Andover monthly Valley Patriot newspaper and the website of the same name, told legislators and a packed hearing room a story of submitting a public records request to the city of Lawrence for bills paid by the city to outside lawyers. Duggan recalled the mayor at the time telling the newspaper that since there was no penalty for not complying with the law, he wasn’t even going to make the effort to find the requested records.
Duggan described a multiyear odyssey and thousands of dollars worth of legal bills. Judges ruled in the newspaper’s favor, he said, but the paper obtained the records only after a new mayor came into office.
Officials take advantage of the fact that there are effectively no penalties for flouting the public records law, Duggan said.
Scott Allen, editor of the Globe’s investigative Spotlight team, testified that after the winter’s epic storms and failures of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the newspaper requested e-mails between the T’s general manager and her staff related to the weather. The response, Allen said, was that the paper could have the e-mails if it paid more than $3,000.
After coming to an agreement with the MBTA to pay more than $1,000, Allen said Tuesday, the Globe is still waiting for the e-mails.
Under state law, government records are presumed to be public, unless protected by an exemption, such as those for active investigations and trade secrets.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office is the arbiter of what records are public and what records are not, but it has no enforcement powers. The office can refer cases of government agencies deemed to be improperly withholding records to the state attorney general, but rarely does. News organizations and others can also file lawsuits to obtain public documents.
The state’s public records law doesn’t apply to the Legislature, and the major bills before the committee do not change that.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Common Cause Massachusetts are, according to a news release, among about 40 groups — from watchdogs to journalism umbrella organizations to environmental advocates — backing two nearly identical bills, one filed in the House, the other in the Senate. The bills were the main focus of the hearing of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.
Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the most important part of the bills and the most potent action the Legislature can take to strengthen the law is to provide lawyer’ fees to requesters who, according to a court, were wrongfully kept from getting public records.
Wolfe said the provision would create a real incentive for agencies to comply with the law.
Now, he explained, “instead of a sunshine law, we have, basically, a flashlight with batteries not included — agencies know it.”
Wolfe added that 47 states and the federal government already have the lawyers’ fees provision in their public records laws or effectively have it through court decisions, so Massachusetts is an outlier.
Other aspects of the bills include capping some public records request fees, requiring agencies have a point person for public records requests, and making it easier for requesters to get documents electronically.
Massachusetts’ public records law is “broken,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “It’s absolutely critical that we make these changes. The very fate our democracy depends on it.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts said “public officials know that they can just ignore the public records law and get away with it.”
Galvin, the secretary of state, also testified in support of many provisions of the bills.
The secretary said he is eager to see an update passed this year. As he has said before, Galvin told the panel an alternative strategy would be a public referendum.
But not every person and organization represented at Tuesday’s hearing supports updating the law in the way the bills proposed.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, opposes the bills in their present form. In a letter to the panel, the group’s executive director, Geoffrey C. Beckwith, said the measures before the committee would impose “burdensome requirements on cities, towns and local taxpayers that cannot reasonably be met except for the most simple requests for records.”
In a phone interview, he warned that the expense of new public records requirements could force communities to reduce services in order to pay for them.
Beckwith said he is not opposed to updating the public records law but advocated for a thorough review first — the creation of a commission — before moving forward.
In statements responding to the push to update the law, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg appeared warmer to the idea than House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.
Rosenberg said he has always believed that the public has a right to access public records in a “cost efficient” and timely manner.
“Not only is it the right thing to do, but transparency and openness help build trust in government,” he said. “I support updating and modernizing our public records laws to achieve these goals.”
DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell said the speaker awaits the panel’s review of the legislation, and that DeLeo “considers the public’s access to government records an important and serious subject.”