Governor Charlie Baker unveiled new rules Thursday for the first time spelling out how the executive branch will handle public records requests, responding to complaints that some agencies took months or more to provide documents or demanded thousands or even millions of dollars for documents.
The new rules, which were generally praised by advocates of open government, will require every executive office and department under Baker's control to publicly designate a person to handle requests, create an internal request tracking system, and provide public documents within eight weeks. The Baker administration also said departments would be ordered to waive search fees for small requests, limit hourly fees to locate documents, and reduce fees for paper copies.
Administration officials said the new rules should help ensure that agencies respond to requests more swiftly and reduce the cost for citizens to obtain information. By contrast, past governors paid so little attention to most public records requests that they let every agency create its own procedures, resulting in wildly different levels of government transparency from one department to the next.
Also Thursday, Baker said that he believes the state's broader public records law, which is widely considered one of the weakest in the country, needs to be strengthened.
"Yeah, I do," Baker told the Globe at an event in Mattapan. "Part of the reason why we did what we did is to sort of start the process and create a little more predictability for people around public records requests."
The Department of Children and Families, for example, took 18 months to provide documents about legal claims against the agency. The State Police billed a Taunton attorney $2.7 million for a database of Breathalyzer test results, a service some other states provided for free.
Despite the changes, however, Baker's own office continued to assert Thursday that it is completely exempt from the public records law, citing an expansive interpretation of a 1977 court decision that was embraced by past administrations. Instead, the office says it provides records voluntarily on a case-by-case basis.
Open records advocates also said the new rules won't address all the problems of obtaining records from state and local agencies, including the lack of penalties if officials refuse to comply with the law.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, one of more than 40 advocacy groups pushing for legislation to strengthen the public records law. "It's an acknowledgment that there clearly is a big problem that needs to be addressed. But it doesn't replace the need for legislation."
Separately, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced a new policy Thursday to make more data in Boston available to the public. The policy calls on city agencies to publish more data on its website and provides guidance to safeguard sensitive information.
The city also added several new data sets to its existing data portal, including information on efforts to recover firearms and usage of the city's free Wi-Fi hot spots and libraries.
A Globe review in July found that Massachusetts is the only state where the governor's office, courts, and Legislature all claim to be exempt from the law. It is one of only three states where citizens can't recoup their legal fees if they win a lawsuit to obtain public records. And the attorney general's office couldn't recall ever prosecuting anyone for flouting the statute.
Lawmakers are considering a bill by Representative Peter Kocot, Democrat of Northampton, that would reduce the cost of copies, give citizens the right to attorneys' fees, and create new fines for flouting the law. But the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, has lobbied lawmakers to scale back or eliminate some provisions, such as limits on fees. The legislation appears to have significant support on Beacon Hill and could reach the House floor for a vote as early as September.
In the meantime, the Baker administration directed agencies Thursday to do some of the things contained in the legislation — such as upload frequently requested data to the Internet and provide data in electronic format when possible. A New York group found the federal government eliminated thousands of duplicate requests by posting popular pesticide documents online.
Baker said the state is also in the process of installing software that should make it easier to search and redact documents, such as e-mail, which should ultimately reduce the cost and time of completing requests.
Baker also responded to criticism about the Massachusetts State Police, which won the "Golden Padlock Award" from a journalism group in June for being the most secretive agency in the country — partly because of a pattern of charging unusually high fees for records.
In addition to the $2.7 million bill for breath tests results, the State Police asked the Globe to pay nearly $43,000 for an electronic list of public records requests and demanded another reporter pay a $710 "non-refundable research fee" to receive a fee estimate.
Even though some of the largest fees involved charges for electronic databases, Baker attributed many of the issues to the difficulty of sifting through paper documents. Regardless, he said: "Everybody has to comply with the rules we are establishing, including the State Police."
A spokesman, Timothy Buckley, said the new rules will only apply to future requests.
Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, praised the new procedures, but said some problems can only be changed by updating the law.
"It's great to see Governor Baker taking the initiative to address some of the problems with cost and delays," Wolfe said. But he added: "We still need a comprehensive legislative fix."