Because Secretary of State William F. Galvin is the face of the state’s open-records law, it’s easy to hold him responsible for its weakness. And indeed, there are ways Galvin could side with the public more aggressively, such as processing records requests more quickly and pushing harder for release of documents from state agencies. In one ridiculous case detailed in a recent story by the Globe’s Todd Wallack, his office refused to help a citizen blogger get information from the State Police about a 63-year-old murder case. But the basic problem is with the law itself, one of the weakest public records statutes in the nation. And the best solution is for the Legislature to toughen up the law.
Open-records laws are supposed to let the public monitor what government agencies are up to. But the Massachusetts law is full of exemptions, provides no penalty for violations, and doesn’t allow requesters to recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue under the law to obtain government documents. That leaves the deck stacked against individuals and media organizations requesting documents.
In practice, the weakness of the law allows public agencies to use the thinnest of legal pretexts to hold back documents from public scrutiny. As Wallack reported, blogger Craig Shibley was denied access to records about a 1951 murder on the grounds that an investigation was ongoing. Even so, Galvin’s supervisor of records sided with the agency, invoking a law aimed at avoiding “premature disclosure of the Commonwealth’s case prior to trial” and preventing the “disclosure of confidential techniques, procedures, or sources of information.” Yet the suspect had died decades before, and State Police were pursuing no new leads. (Galvin’s office reversed itself after the Globe story appeared.)
The Legislature should tune up the public-records law so that agencies can’t treat existing exemptions — for criminal investigations, personnel matters, trade secrets, and other broad categories — as infinitely elastic. Lawmakers should also offer the secretary of state greater enforcement powers, and guarantee citizens and news organizations the ability to secure records to which they are entitled without being stuck with big legal bills.
Galvin’s Republican opponent in the November election, Malden City Councilor David D’Arcangelo, promises to hold agencies’ feet to the fire when they try to avoid disclosing documents or demand outrageous paperwork fees. Those are nice sentiments; voters should press Galvin for a similar commitment. But if the Legislature put more teeth into the law, whoever wins in November will have a lot more tools to work with.