The Massachusetts Senate is scheduled to begin debate today on legislation that ideally should be aimed at giving the state’s public records law – one of the weakest in the nation – a much-needed backbone transplant.
Last fall, the Massachusetts House approved its version of the bill, but changes rendered the final result anemic. The Senate, which recorded 64 amendments to its own bill this week, now has a chance to make things right. State senators should work to give the public a law that mandates streamlined access with reasonable limits on fees, meaningful enforcement, and mandatory attorney’s fees if the government behaves in bad faith.
One important amendment, by state Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, deserves strong support. The bill, as drafted, allows agencies to charge as much as they want per hour — or bill citizens for an unlimited number of hours — to review or redact documents if the supervisor of records approves. Eldridge’s amendment plugs that loophole. In January, the supervisor of records, who works for Secretary of State William Galvin, said the town of Montague could charge $175 per hour to review documents. And in December, the supervisor said the State Police could charge $6,525 for a copy of its public records request log — a simple list of people who filed records requests, a brief summary of what they wanted, and the dates the requests were processed. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, the supervisor of records agreed with the State Police claim that it would take 265 hours — or 3 hours per page — to review the log, even though it arguably did not contain confidential information.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association argues that capping fees amounts to an unfunded mandate for cities and towns. But another Senate amendment, filed by Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, offers a constructive solution: It would allow higher fees only for work that needs to be done by an attorney.
Neither bill addresses exemptions in the law for the Legislature, the governor’s office,or the judiciary; the House bill would form a commission to study the issue. These exemptions should be challenged — but that’s work for another day. Today, the Senate should stand up for the public’s right to know and strengthen the Commonwealth’s weak open records law.