A legislative report due at the end of the year on whether the state’s new public records law should also be applied to the Legislature, the governor’s office, and the judiciary is unlikely to get done.
Why? The group of lawmakers charged with preparing the report has never met.
“That is a little troubling,” said state Representative Mathew Muratore, a Plymouth Republican who is a member of the public records commission. The group’s leaders, he said, have never convened a meeting.
“I’m going to start asking around,” he said this week.
The commission was established under an overhaul of the state’s public records law that Governor Charlie Baker signed in June 2016 and took effect at the beginning of the year.
The reform bill included provisions that made some government offices more transparent, but didn’t address whether the public records law should also apply to the Legislature, the governor’s office, and the judiciary. The commission could recommend changes to the law to include those groups.
Massachusetts is the only state where those offices all claim to be exempt from public records laws.
On Friday, state Attorney General Maura Healey sided with Baker in a legal dispute over whether he had to provide the Globe records about constituent calls. The current public records law, Healey found, doesn’t cover Baker’s office.
Advocates for stronger public records laws said they were disappointed that the group hasn’t met. Some seats on the commission also remain vacant.
“If you promise to do something, then follow through on it,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “It shows they’re not serious about looking at the Legislature’s own exemption in particular.”
By law, the 14-member commission is to be led by the chairpersons of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, a group that underwent leadership changes this year.
State Senator Walter F. Timilty was named chairman of the Senate committee in February. State Representative Jennifer Benson took over the House committee in July.
After the Globe began making inquiries, spokesmen for Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo issued a statement suggesting that Timilty and Benson hadn’t had enough time to organize the commission because they are new to the committee and had to address other business first.
The statement also said Rosenberg and DeLeo intend to fill the vacant seats in the coming weeks and will seek to extend the Dec. 30 deadline for the commission to complete its work.
State Senator Joan Lovely, who previously led the Senate Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, said she was out of that position when the new legislative session began earlier this year. The public records panel, she said, couldn’t convene until the new law took effect Jan. 1.
Lovely, who helped spearhead public records reform, said she was recently appointed to the commission. Even though it’s not required by law, she said some documents maintained by her office are publicly available.
Lawmakers are serious about studying whether more records should be considered public, she said.
“We took it very seriously because we put it in the law,” said Lovely, a Salem Democrat. “I do believe that we should be looking at including the Legislature somehow in public records.”
In a statement, Timilty listed the state senators who have been named to the commission and said he looks forward to “our collective efforts to enhance the public’s ability to access information regarding the legislative process.”
The Milton Democrat was sworn into the Senate in January after winning election last year. His spokeswoman didn’t respond to a question about why the public records commission hadn’t met.
Benson was at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, and couldn’t be reached. Representative Peter Kocot, Benson’s predecessor on the House Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, didn’t return messages.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of the good government group Common Cause Massachusetts, said it’s not uncommon for legislative commissions to never convene.
“I thought that this one would be different and I’m disappointed that this wasn’t taken more seriously,” she said. “This is something that deserves more attention and I think the commission would have been a good venue for it.”
Healey’s office examined whether the public records law applied to the governor’s office after the state supervisor of public records sought her input in April.
While she concluded that the current law supported Baker’s decision to withhold logs of constituent calls, a Healey spokeswoman said calls to the attorney general’s hot line are made public because her office is covered by the public records statute.
Healey encourages “all public offices to do the same,” said Jillian Fennimore, the spokeswoman.
The state Supreme Judicial Court also had an opportunity to decide whether the public records law applies to the judiciary’s administrative records, but sidestepped the issue earlier this month.
The question was raised in a lawsuit brought by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice over records about the race and gender of some Massachusetts Trial Court employees.
Government lawyers cited the public records commission when they urged the SJC not to address whether the public records law covered the judiciary’s administrative records, said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for the committee.
Another group created under public records reform law has been studying whether to modify the exemptions for certain police records.
That group has met four times and has a another meeting scheduled for Monday, according to the secretary of state’s office. Meeting notices are published online and the group plans to submit its recommendations by the Dec. 30 deadline, said Ambrogi, of the newspaper association, who is on the panel.