Work together to digitize, open up public records
IT WAS with great interest that I read Todd Wallack’s reporting on municipal compliance with public records requests in Sunday’s Globe (“Most localities fail test on state records law,” Page A1, Dec. 27).
As a professional public administrator, I found many of the reported compliance issues to be troubling, but I was also concerned that the article did not say anything about those of us who did comply. On Oct. 22, the Town of Easton received the requests from Northeastern journalism students. We complied with one the next day and the other in four days. In accordance with our policy, we did not charge a fee, because the records were in our possession and easily e-mailed.
In my experience (33 years), stricter rules and fines won’t solve the problem. The vast majority of public officials want to do the right thing, but a lack of knowledge and resources are barriers. Perhaps the Legislature could require the Secretary of the Commonwealth to provide mandatory training and technical assistance to municipal officials. It might also be helpful to establish a liaison in the secretary’s public records division to field questions from local officials when they get a request for information that they are unsure is legally available to the public. A similar program exists in the state Ethics Commission where officials receive training and have the ability to ask questions.
Looking at the problem in its larger context, perhaps the Legislature could overhaul the laws requiring records to be kept on paper and help municipalities migrate to digital record-keeping. When a document is stored digitally, it can be located and sent more easily, thus eliminating any rationale for charging a fee, which is also a barrier. Many records are available on the Town of Easton website. For example, if someone wanted our budget or any number of other documents, I would simply send a link to that person.
Creative solutions are out there, if we work together for the common good that responsible municipal officials and journalists are striving to achieve. That outcome would be far better than the creation of a new system of punitive measures.