WHEN 11 of Mitt Romney’s staffers bought their state-issued hard drives and aides wiped e-mails and other documents from state servers as his term as governor drew to a close, they made two things clear: First, the Romney team went to extraordinary lengths to avoid surprises or embarrassments in a future presidential campaign. Second, the relevant laws in Massachusetts aren’t strong enough to guarantee citizens the ability to see material that is produced by public officials and is clearly relevant to the public interest.
Several of the former staffers have defended their actions by arguing they followed the state’s public records laws. That’s hardly clear. A state official who acceded to the Romney team’s request said the hard drive purchases were unprecedented but not illegal; the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1997 that the governor is “not explicitly included’’ in public records laws. Other experts say documents produced by a governor and executive-branch aides are at least public property that should be archived, even if it isn’t disclosed. Regardless, the Romney team’s actions at least violated the spirit of the law, considering that those laws exist to protect state records - not to enable officials to make off with them.
What Massachusetts needs is a more robust, more explicit protection of citizens’ right to see public documents. The problem began when Governor Paul Cellucci first interpreted the 1997 ruling to allow the executive branch to withhold any document from the public. Every administration since has followed suit, including that of Deval Patrick, who campaigned on a platform of government openness and transparency. Patrick’s staff responds to all public records requests, even those it fulfills, with a letter asserting that the governor is not legally required to provide documents to the public - as if coughing up documents requested by citizens is a special favor.
The Legislature should use this opportunity to re-situate the executive branch under the purview of the state’s public records laws. It is unlikely to do so on its own, however, since the Legislature also falls under an exemption to the law. How about a law that covers both? Governor Patrick should take the first step and encourage the Legislature to curb his office’s ability to withhold documents from the public. At least then, he will be leaving a far better legacy than his predecessor.