Easy access to public records is necessary for government accountability. But Massachusetts’ public record law is out of date. State agencies routinely charge 20 cents a page for documents that can be delivered in an electronic format, and requests for documents often go months without reply. Fortunately, an amendment filed by Representative Peter Kocot of Northampton would correct these deficiencies. Legislators should embrace it.
The amendment would require all state agencies to designate a "records access officer" to help people request and receive the documents they are looking for, and state agencies would have to publish online the most frequently requested documents, such as voting records. Also, the amendment would require the state to reimburse the legal fees of organizations that have to sue to get the documents they need. Fear of expensive litigation is an oft-cited deterrent to small organizations challenging arbitrary denials of requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, but a program that allows them to recoup the expense of a successful suit should go a long way toward increasing government transparency.
Privacy protections would remain. According to Kocot, the law would still exclude sensitive communications from constituents — who sometimes request help from state politicians in dealing with personal matters, such as finding a loved one a spot in a rehab clinic — as well as the internal deliberations of party caucuses.
Kocot says that the amendment has won a lot of support on Beacon Hill — including from House Speaker Robert DeLeo — and is likely to come up for a vote this session. It would be a strong step toward a more accountable government.