The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday revamping the state’s much-maligned public records law, considered one of the least effective in the country. The vote came after the House late last year passed a version of the bill seen by good government advocates as much weaker.
Though the Senate engaged in a passionate back-and-forth on Beacon Hill on Thursday, and several advocates cheered the legislation’s passage, the more profound debate is likely to take place in a secret joint House-Senate conference committee. That group of legislators would hash out differences between the two chambers, probably releasing a final version of the bill in the summer.
Among other changes, the Senate legislation would mandate public-records point people at state agencies and municipalities, limit sometimes exorbitant fees, and require digital as opposed to paper responses. If a court decides a requestor was wrongfully kept from getting public records, the bill says a court “shall award” reasonable lawyers’ fees, with some exceptions.
The House bill would leave the decision on reimbursing those fees totally up to a judge — saying a court “may award” those fees.
Good government advocates say allowing the public to recoup those legal costs would provide a strong incentive for cities, towns, and the state bureaucracy to fulfill public records requests; they don’t like the House-passed language on that issue.
But they lauded the Senate bill.
“This is a great victory for public records and public transparency,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, standing in the State House after the 35-0 vote.
“The Senate president and leadership did a great job of making sure this bill went through in a strong form to protect democracy and public transparency,” Rose said, breaking into applause as Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg walked out of the chamber. “We hope it will stay as strong when it gets reconciled with the House.”
Under state law, government records are presumed to be public unless protected by an exemption, such as those for active investigations and trade secrets. However advocates, like some journalism groups, the ACLU, and Common Cause Massachusetts, contend that requests for those public records, from government e-mails to contracts, are sometimes met with inaction because there’s no real penalty for noncompliance.
Another difference between the House-passed bill and the Senate-passed bill: how long bureaucrats will have to respond to requests.
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 a one-time indefinite extension from the secretary of state’s office. The Senate bill would allow agencies and municipalities up to 30 days, with the option to seek a 30-day extension from the secretary of state’s office.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, praised the House-passed bill. It’s a “workable framework that communities could actually implement,” said Geoff Beckwith, the group’s executive director. He said dozens and dozens of communities only have part-time governments, so many communities don’t have the resources to quickly respond to requests.
But he said Thursday the association is deeply concerned about the Senate bill because of its shorter timeline for responding to requests, as well as allowing records requestors to be “more litigious.” He also expressed concern about the state mandating new responsibilities for cities and towns without giving them help to pay for them.
But a top state senator, the chairwoman of the chamber’s powerful budget-writing committee, framed the bill as balanced for cities and town and good for the public.
“Simply put, this bill strengthens our public records law to improve access and make the process of requesting records simple, clear, and fair,” Senator Karen E. Spilka said.
After the vote, Rosenberg said he looked forward to the House and the Senate soon working out their differences. And, he said, “there will be a robust discussion, I’m sure, in the conference committee.”
Governor Charlie Baker looks forward to reviewing any public records bill the Legislature sends to him, Billy Pitman, a Baker spokesman, said in a statement.