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SCOT LEHIGH

Mass. public records reform enters the Twilight Zone

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Uh oh — transparency has entered the Beacon Hill Twilight Zone.

I’m talking here about efforts to update the state’s weak and antique public records law, considered one of the lamest in the land. When good-government efforts get left to the closing days of a session, one’s bad-government antenna should go up. And that’s the case here. The public records reform bill has been stalled for months in Speaker Bob DeLeo’s den.

“The Senate was prepared to take it up in July, so we have just been waiting for the House,” notes Democratic Senator Jamie Eldridge of Acton, a good-government guy. “The concern I hear from advocates who support a strong public records bill is that it is being watered down.” That’s a worry shared by Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who, frustrated by years of legislative inertia, has filed a ballot initiative to try to force action.

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The thrust of the reform effort is to strengthen enforcement powers, streamline access, limit the fees an agency or municipality can charge for collecting and copying records, allow a filer to recover attorney’s fees and court costs if his request is wrongly denied, and provide for civil fines if the law is willfully flouted.

The legislation that the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight reported out in July embraced those reforms. Enter the opponents. The Massachusetts Municipal Association, the district attorneys, and the State Police have all reportedly weighed in. The MMA is worried about added costs as a result of a stronger statute. Law enforcement has never been enthusiastic about the law even in its existing tepid form.

Faced with those objections, House leadership has kept the bill in the House Way and Means Committee. Seth Gitell, DeLeo’s spokesman, says the House should take the legislation up next week.

Twilight Zone Problem #1: As of Thursday afternoon, there was still no official word on what the House legislation would contain.

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Twilight Zone Problem #2: The formal legislative session ends next Wednesday. Which means that, in all likelihood, the Senate will have just one day to consider the matter if and when the House sends a bill over. Given the tensions between the two branches — and the suspicion that the House, by waiting so long, is trying to force the Senate’s hand — prospects for passage this year are imperiled.

Given Beacon Hill’s various bad-government follies — like, say, the Legislature’s effort to turn the Probation Department into a Tammany Hall-like patronage colony — one would think House leadership would make this good-government effort a priority. Of course, that would mean overcoming petty jealousies and tensions and treating the Senate less disdainfully. So actually, maybe not.

For his part, Galvin worries that if the public records-law upgrade doesn’t pass this year, an opportunity could be lost. “If everything is pushed to next year, it will give more opportunities for mischief by those who oppose it,” he says.

Provided the House’s bill falls within reasonable parameters, the secretary thinks the best course would be for the Senate to pass legislation of some sort. That way, the matter would at least make it into conference committee, where it could be improved. A final bill might then pass by unanimous consent in informal session. Failing that, it could at least be ready for action when the Legislature returns to formal session in January.

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If not, this needs to be a top priority for early next year.

“The time is now to do this,” says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Our public records law is an embarrassment.”

And if this reform effort dies in the Twilight Zone, it won’t be our only public records embarrassment.


Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.