The Massachusetts Senate unveiled legislation Thursday to overhaul the state’s public records law for the first time in more than four decades, going further than a similar measure adopted by the House late last year.
The Senate proposal contains provisions designed to make it easier for people to obtain government records. For example, the bill would require agencies to publicly designate someone to handle requests, limit the fees agencies can charge for records, and give citizens the right to recoup their legal fees if they are forced to file a lawsuit to obtain documents. The current law is widely considered one of the weakest in the country.
“There is no point in having a public records law if people cannot get timely access to the records they need,” Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said.
The House approved its own version of the bill in November. But a House committee significantly watered down the legislation after objections from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns. That in turned sparked a backlash from open-government advocates, who complained the bill didn’t go far enough to improve the law and in some cases would make it even weaker. For instance, the House bill would make it harder for citizens to sue to obtain records and would give agencies far more time to respond to requests.
Under current law, agencies are supposed to comply with requests within 10 calendar days, though that provision is often ignored. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would give agencies more time to respond, addressing complaints that the current deadline might be unrealistic in some cases. The House plan would generally give state agencies up to 60 days and local communities up to 75 days to fully comply with requests — plus allow them to seek an indefinite extension from the secretary of state.
The Senate bill would allow agencies up to 30 days, with the option to seek a 30-day extension.
Both versions of the legislation would also put new limits on the fees officials can charge, including limiting the price for paper copies to 5 cents a page (down from 20 to 50 cents a page under existing regulations), requiring officials to waive the first few hours of labor fees, and capping the amount state agencies can charge to $25 per hour. The Senate bill would also apply the cap to local communities, unless they get permission from the secretary of state to charge more.
The Senate bill also goes further than the House to compensate citizens forced to file a lawsuit to obtain records. Like most other states, the Senate plan would give citizens the right to recover their legal fees in certain cases. By contrast, the House proposal would leave the decision entirely up to a judge. In addition, the Senate bill would order the courts to expedite public records cases where possible so lawsuits don’t drag on for years.
“I think it is a very large step forward and would substantially increase access to public information about government,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, was also quick to praise the Senate bill. “These are practical, tested reforms that are needed to make the law more than just empty words on a page,” Rose said in a statement.
But the bill is likely to face stiff resistance from some government officials and lobbying groups.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the group has just begun reviewing the legislation. But Beckwith said he had some initial concerns about the Senate bill’s limitations on fees, deadlines for providing records, and provisions for mandatory attorneys fees in certain cases.
“The bill appears to be more administratively and financially burdensome for cities and towns than the House version,” Beckwith said. “Deadlines that are too short remove flexibility for school and municipal employees.”
Neither the House nor Senate bill addresses one of the biggest complaints about the state’s public records laws: the long list of exemptions. Massachusetts is the only state in the country where the Legislature, judiciary, and governor’s office all claim to be exempt from the law. And even when agencies are clearly covered by the law, many of their records are not.
House and Senate lawmakers say they plan to deal with the exemptions separately. The House, for instance, proposed a commission to study whether to expand the scope of the law to cover the courts, Legislature, and governor’s office.
The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill Thursday, and then the House and Senate will have to resolve any differences between the bills in a conference committee. The governor has said he generally supports updating the law as well but hasn’t taken a position on any specific bill.
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