Massachusetts residents seeking public records are often met with inexplicable delays and onerous costs from agencies that face no consequences for flouting the law. In fact, the Commonwealth consistently ranks at the bottom nationally when it comes to ready access to government records, a serious weakness at a time when public trust has been eroded by a lack of transparency. In tackling public records reform this year, a committee of legislators has tried to strike a balance: predictable, timely, and fair access to records, with manageable rules for government in responding.
On Beacon Hill, this has played out as a debate between a weak House bill and a much stronger Senate version. While far from perfect, a new bill, released earlier this week by a six-member conference committee, and approved unanimously in votes by the House and Senate on Wednesday, is the strongest version yet. Governor Charlie Baker should sign it into law.
The bill gives the law some teeth, circumventing sometimes byzantine bureaucracies and allowing those seeking records to recoup court costs when they are wrongfully denied public information. In essence, the fear of incurring significant financial penalty promises to change the balance of power.
Lawmakers also have included another important provision: Directing agencies to appoint someone to handle public records requests, a move that should help streamline information access. And the new bill is designed to rein in costs: A limit would be set at $25 per hour to redact documents without special permission from the secretary of state’s office.
But several troubling components of the old law remain in place, including a slew of records exemptions that often give agencies leeway to deny requests. The revised bill also gives agencies more time to respond to requests and includes only modest penalties for those who violate the law.
Sunlight is one of the most important conditions for a thriving democracy. Although the compromise bill comes up short in several respects, it is a solid improvement and promises to provide citizens more of the information they rightfully deserve.