Metro

Mass. House approves overhaul to public records law

The Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Wednesday to overhaul the state’s anemic public records law for the first time in more than four decades, despite complaints from some public records advocates that the bill did not go far enough to make records available.

The legislation includes a measure designed to reduce the fees for copies. It orders government agencies to publicly designate someone to handle public records requests, and it gives citizens the opportunity to potentially recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records.

“These reforms will significantly enhance accountability, access to public records, and enforcement,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement.

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But the bill also gives agencies significantly more time to respond to requests, allows them to outsource some requests to vendors, and did not go as far as some advocates had hoped to rein in labor charges and penalize officials who flout the law.

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The bill now moves to the Senate, where it will likely be approved in some form after the Legislature reconvenes in January. Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg has repeatedly voiced support for the legislation. A spokesman said the Senate will review the bill over the holidays and formally take it up early next year.

House lawmakers also tacked on two amendments to the bill Wednesday. One by Assistant House Minority Leader Bradford R. Hill would form a commission to study whether to extend the law to cover the governor’s office, Legislature and judiciary. Massachusetts is the only state where all three branches of government claim to be completely exempt from the open records law.

A second amendment by House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. would permit officials to deny records requests from people who failed to pay for previous requests. A spokesman for Jones said the measure was intended to address complaints that some town clerks had processed requests — only to have the individuals never come in to pick up the documents or pay for them.

But a public records attorney said he worried agencies could potentially cite the language to refuse to provide records to anyone who has contested a huge fee estimate or gave up their request altogether after learning the documents were too expensive.

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“My concern is that the bill had just introduced an awful lot of ambiguities,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer and executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

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