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Senate must improve House’s weak public records bill

A PUBLIC RECORDS bill approved at the 11th hour in the Massachusetts House of Representatives marks a few steps in the right direction. But the approved measure, which the Senate expects to take up in January when the Legislature reconvenes after the holiday break, contains problematic provisions that leave the door open for bureaucratic misbehavior. The Senate must improve and fix the proposed law.

Public records laws are intended to guarantee that citizens can gain access to government documents. But the Massachusetts version hasn’t had a major update since 1974, and is full of exceptions and loopholes. For residents who want to see the documents their tax dollars pay for, public records requests can be time-consuming, expensive, and frustrating.

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Although the original bill sponsored by state Representative Peter Kocot was much more rigorous, the revised version does contain the cost of obtaining public records by limiting copying fees to five cents per page. It also mandates government agencies appoint a public records officer, and grants courts the discretion to require agencies to pay legal fees to citizens if they successfully sue to get previously denied records.

But in some key aspects, the House-approved measure goes backward.

Under current law, state agencies have 10 calendar days to comply with requests. Most government bodies ignore this deadline already, but the new bill would give them even more time: 10 business days to respond, while giving state agencies 60 days to comply and 75 days for cities and towns — plus the ability to get an extension. There doesn’t seem to be any other state in the country where municipalities are allowed so much time.

In another disappointing compromise, under the House bill, the Commonwealth would continue to be the only state in the nation where the Legislature, the governor’s office, and the judiciary are exempt from the public records law. The House rejected an amendment to get rid of such exemptions, opting instead to form a commission to study the matter.

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The legislation also makes it harder to appeal or sue to challenge cost estimates when records have been denied, or when agencies haven’t complied with requests. It gives residents only 30 days to file such lawsuits, which is too narrow a window. According to Boston Globe reporter Todd Wallack, it took the Globe six weeks to undergo the complicated, costly preparation to file a recent lawsuit against the State Police for withholding records needed to determine whether state troopers had a history of crashes, speeding tickets, and other driving problems. And the Globe has the resources to keep legal counsel on retainer. Other people would first have to find an attorney to take their case, while the 30 days ticked away.

Still, if the Senate makes improvements to the bill, it could strengthen freedom of information regulations while eliminating avenues for bureaucrats to stall and deny access to government records. One way to put a hop in the step of state record-keepers is to give citizens a foolproof, rather than discretionary, right to damages should they prevail in court. And the deadline for government responses needs to be tightened while providing a wider window to sue. If the Senate can make those changes, the bill would help foster greater government transparency in a Commonwealth that needs it.