Metro

Governor wants towns to do better on public records

Governor Charlie Baker said Monday he was surprised by a report over the weekend that most cities and towns in the state failed to respond promptly to public records requests.

“Cities and towns need to abide by the law and, in many cases, need to be able to turn those [requests] around far more quickly,” Baker told reporters Monday at an event to promote improvements at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

On Sunday, The Globe and WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reported the findings of a Northeastern University journalism class, which performed the largest audit ever conducted of how Massachusetts cities and towns respond to public records requests from average citizens.

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The students sent two requests to every municipality in the state for documents that are widely considered to be public — one for a copy of the most recent annual payroll report showing how much workers earned and a second for the community’s “use of force” policy on when police officers can use their weapons.

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But 58 percent of the 351 communities neglected to respond to one or both requests within the 10-day statutory deadline, including nearly one-fourth that took longer than 40 days (the length of the student project) or never responded at all to at least one of the requests.

In addition, more than a dozen outright rejected the requests for legally dubious reasons (such as saying the student’s name was typed, rather than signed). And many put up other obstacles to obtaining the records, such as charging onerous fees, refusing to provide the information in electronic form, or requiring students to pick up the documents in person and show a photo ID. One town demanded $1,440 for a list of the towns’ employees and how much they earned.

“I was particularly surprised to see the information with respect to payroll,” Baker said. “That seems to me to be kind of a standard operating procedure for most cities and towns.”

Critics say the high failure rate is another sign that Massachusetts has one of the weakest public records laws in the country. The attorney general’s office can’t recall a single case where it has prosecuted an official or agency for violating the law. And Massachusetts is one of only three states where citizens can’t recoup legal fees, let alone win damages, if they successfully go to court to obtain records.

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A spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey also reiterated her support for improving the law.

“The AG believes government should be transparent and accessible to the public and that the time has come to update and modernize our public records laws,” said the spokeswoman, Emalie Gainey, in a statement. “She supports legislation to improve our laws and hold public bodies accountable for complying.”

Baker, who once served as a Swampscott selectman, said he suspects many cities and towns may simply be unaware of all the requirements of the law. He suggested the administration might want to team up with Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, to help educate officials about the rules. In addition, Baker noted his office issued new guidelines to encourage his own agencies to better respond to records requests.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Municipal Association, said the organization already plans to hold a workshop next month and would be happy to team up with the Baker administration to provide guidance to local officials on the law and the best practices to follow.

Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin, noted his office already offers frequent training opportunities for local officials on the rules. And McNiff pointed out that the 10-day limit for responding to requests is noted on its website several times.

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But Beckwith previously noted he wasn’t sure the 10-day deadline was realistic, given the limited staffing and workload at many cities and towns. Beckwith said he supports a proposal to give cities and towns more time to respond.

And James Lampke, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association, said he thought the Northeastern test might not be representative of the requests cities and towns typically receive, because residents often ask for information in person, rather than sending a formal request via mail.

The Legislature is debating a bill to overhaul the public records law for the first time in more than four decades, though it is unclear how far lawmakers will go to strengthen the law. Public records advocates were critical of a version that passed the House last fall and hopeful the Senate will retool the bill early next year. Baker has said repeatedly that he supports legislation to strengthen the law but has left the details to the Legislature.

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