The time for meaningful public records reform is now
LAST SUMMER, long-overdue reforms in the Commonwealth’s ineffectual public records laws seemed imminent. A bill introduced in the Legislature aimed to give the law teeth, by capping some fees charged to citizens and making it easier to request records electronically, among other welcome provisions.
But the measure remains bottled up in the House Ways and Means Committee, where legislators have gotten an earful from opponents like the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo says he expects a bill on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk before the Legislature takes its holiday break in less than two weeks. But the lack of action so far is troubling; transparency is a vital part of building trust in government, and prompt, affordable access to public records is a basic right for Massachusetts taxpayers. Legislators should move the bill out of committee and pass it.
The MMA, which represents the state’s cities and towns, says the bill would impose unreasonable and “burdensome requirements on cities, towns, and local taxpayers.” But compliance does not necessarily carry a cost, and municipal agencies can certainly find savings by providing more records electronically. Secretary of State William Galvin has strong words for such claims: “This idea that complying will be a burden, that’s nonsense. Our current system is unenforceable.”
Lawmakers also must not dilute provisions in the bill that allow attorney’s fees to be paid back to a complainant who successfully sues after being denied access to public information. This provision, which the municipal lawyers’ group objects to, makes the enforcement process real, and is an important part of holding public agencies accountable. Massachusetts is one of only three states in the country that does not allow courts to grant attorney’s fees when public records requests have been denied. Without this provision, the Commonwealth cannot be a national leader when it comes to transparency in government – and it should be.
Galvin is prepared to move forward with a ballot initiative if the legislation stalls or is watered down. “I’m anxious about the part that deals with enforcement in the legislation,” he said. “There has to be a process to follow up to enforce the law if the record is not surrendered as it should be.”
But a ballot initiative opens the door to more lobbying by special interest groups, and is no guarantee that the law will be reformed. The Legislature should pass the bill as is and make it easier for citizens to evaluate how — and whether — government officials are doing their jobs.