Putting teeth into Mass. public records law
Not long after taking over as the Commonwealth’s new attorney general, Maura Healey promised to do a better job of enforcing the public’s right to view government records than her predecessor, Martha Coakley. She could hardly do worse: Under Coakley, the AG’s office had effectively stopped enforcing the state’s public-records law, and a frustrated Secretary of State William Galvin had consequently given up on referring violations of the law — which his office administers — for prosecution.
Massachusetts has earned a reputation as one of the least transparent states in the nation, especially when it came to the release of records involving police departments. Two transparency watchdog organizations, the Sunlight Foundation and the State Integrity Investigation, both gave Massachusetts a grade of F on providing access to legitimate public documents. As Globe reporter Todd Wallack has documented, state and local officials brazenly stonewall requests for information; a favorite stratagem has been to demand outrageous fees to supply copies of reports or filings that citizens have every legal right to see.
So we are encouraged that Healey has moved swiftly to start making good on her commitment to put teeth into the public-records statute.
Recently, the attorney general contacted Fall River police for a “discussion” of the exorbitant fees it was demanding to supply a journalist with documents relating to the arrest of a citizen for videotaping an allegedly abusive officer at a traffic detail. The secretary of state had ordered the police to reduce its fee estimate; the police chief defiantly refused to comply. In May, the case was referred to Healey’s office. Within days of hearing from the attorney general, the Fall River police dramatically reduced their document fee.
It’s only a first step, but it couldn’t be more welcome. For too long, authorities in Massachusetts have flouted the legal and moral obligation to provide timely access to government records, above all when questions have been raised about the conduct of those on the public payroll. Transparency is not a frill. Blocking information the people have a right to view undermines good government by entrenching favoritism and malfeasance. To combat government rot and social ills, Louis D. Brandeis famously said, “sunlight is . . . the best of disinfectants.” Healey and Galvin should make it a priority, working together, to prise open the shutters and let more of those cleansing rays in.