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Legislature puts off vote on public records reform

The House plans to put off voting on a bill to overhaul the state’s public records law until later this year after cities and towns complained that the new rules could be too costly.

Representative Peter Kocot, a Northampton Democrat and the bill’s chief sponsor, had originally hoped the House would take up a vote on the bill to improve public access to government documents by the end of this month, ahead of the August break. But after some local officials raised objections, Kocot said lawmakers decided it was important to revise some of the language to address their concerns.

“I think we are very close,” Kocot said, adding that the original timeline may have simply been too aggressive. “We are looking to produce a really strong bill and take it up in the first week or two in September.”

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Massachusetts has one of the weakest public records laws in the country. Agencies routinely take months or longer to respond to requests for documents, refuse to release documents when they do respond, or charge thousands of dollars or more for records that are available elsewhere for little or nothing. For instance, the State Police demanded $2.7 million for a database of breathalyzer results that other states provided for nothing or a nominal fee, such as $75.

Kocot’s bill is intended to strengthen the public records law for the first time in more than four decades by reducing the cost of copies, requiring agencies to offer electronic records in electronic form, and fining agencies that violate the law. It has support from many lawmakers and advocacy groups.

But the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, argued that the current version of the bill will pose too much of a financial and administrative burden on communities.

“I think the delay makes sense,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the association, adding that the group is not against updating the law. “We are for a bill that communities can implement.”

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Andrew T. Dowd, president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association, said his group also “recognizes the need for practical changes to the public records law.” He said the clerks only had a few minor suggestions to make the bill easier to enforce.

Some public records advocates have also suggested tweaks, but were disappointed by the delay.

“We were hoping for the legislation to go through this week, but the real issue is getting a good bill,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Public records is a key part of democracy and clearly the law is not working in Massachusetts.”

Kocot said that lawmakers were looking at “all aspects” of the bill, but that they were particularly focused on making sure requests don’t overwhelm small towns and finding ways to prevent people from abusing the law by harassing officials with a flood of requests.

In the meantime, Secretary of State William F. Galvin has vowed to press ahead with his own ballot initiative to strengthen the public records law, based partly on an earlier draft of Kocot’s bill.

Galvin faces an Aug. 5 deadline to file his initiative petition, the first of many steps to put the measure on the ballot next year. Galvin said he would prefer the Legislature amend the law on its own, but will press forward with his initiative if lawmakers fail to approve a bill. If the Legislature does act, Galvin will still have nearly a year to withdraw his proposal.

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