Reasonable access to public records is one of the pillars of a strong and vibrant democracy. Let state agencies hide their records — the very information citizens underwrite with their taxes — and the stage is set for malfeasance and corruption.
It is in that spirit that members of the media, nonprofit groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and others have pressed to strengthen the Commonwealth’s ineffectual public records laws. A bill that would give the law some teeth — by capping some fees for public records, requiring agencies to designate a person to handle requests, and making it easier for requesters to obtain information electronically — is now before the state House Ways and Means Committee. It represents a solid step forward in holding government agencies accountable.
But the measure, which has garnered opposition from groups like the Massachusetts Municipal Association, could use a boost from Governor Charlie Baker. His press secretary says: “Governor Baker expects all agencies to fully comply with public records laws and looks forward to reviewing additional proposals.” The simple fact, however, is that many agencies don’t comply with public records laws, use delaying tactics, or thwart requests by demanding egregious fees. As the Globe’s Todd Wallack reported, a public records request to the state police for information on the use of Breathalyzers yielded a $2.7 million original estimated fee, only to be reduced to $1.2 million. The Globe also revealed that Massachusetts ranks 49th in the nation for the time it takes in responding to public records requests.
Critics of the bill contend that, because it is unfunded, it will impose a significant financial burden on cities and towns. But compliance with some of the provisions does not necessarily carry a cost. Agencies could save on printing and labor by providing records electronically, for example.
Transparency is intrinsic to trust in government, and citizens have the fundamental right to evaluate and question how elected and appointed public officials are performing their jobs. A culture of government secrecy only raises doubts. Prompt, affordable access to public records sends a strong message of government accountability that Massachusetts taxpayers need to hear.
The Breathalyzer project is merely one example of the need for data that could ultimately make an important impact on public policy. The Taunton attorney who received the astronomical bill is compiling a nationwide database of breath-alcohol test results. (Some states provided the data at no cost.) Indeed, as recent as this spring, the accuracy of Breathalyzers was challenged by some Massachusetts prosecutors and district attorneys after it was discovered that a calibration issue had prevented some machines from functioning properly. A quick internal investigation was launched, and it was determined that only about 150 cases had been compromised. But questions still linger about the machine’s reliability, and an independent review of test results — the data the Taunton attorney requested — would perhaps yield a more decisive conclusion.
When a basic law enforcement tool is in question, and defendants’ rights are at stake, transparency is essential. Baker stressed his managerial skill and his interest in elevating the art of governing throughout his campaign. His stamp of approval could provide the critical support that the measure needs.