State Senate Passes Public Records Reform Legislation
Feb 09, 2016 06:32AM
By Bill Gilman
The Massachusetts State Senate unanimously passed legislation reforming how the state handles public records.
The legislation, originally sponsored by Sen. Jason Lewis, would be the first update to the state’s public records law since the early 1970s.
“Today’s unanimous vote of the Senate finally puts some teeth into Massachusetts’ public records law,” said Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, whose district also includes Lawrence, Tewksbury and Dracut. “I was proud to stand with my colleagues in passing our bill to make public documents more accessible to the public and reform our public records law, which is widely considered to be one of the weakest in the nation.”
The Senate bill now heads to a conference committee to be reconciled with the version passed by the House of Representatives last year before being sent to the governor.
The Senate legislation would reduce costs for records requestors and ensure timely compliance with public records requests. The bill brings Massachusetts in line with 47 other states and the federal government in allowing attorney’s fees to be awarded to plaintiffs who are victorious in court when denied records. The bill requires attorney fees to be awarded, except in certain defined situations.
“There have been too many examples of agencies and municipal officials openly flaunting the law by telling reporters and other citizens that they don’t have to provide public documents because there are no consequences for noncompliance,” Sen. L’Italien said. “And I’ve heard too many stories about officials charging exorbitant fees for producing copies of public documents -- thousands of dollars and more in some high-profile examples.”
Under the Senate legislation, each state agency and municipality is required to appoint at least one public records access officer to serve as the point of contact for all public records requests and coordinate a timely and thorough response. The public records officer does not have to be a new employee.
“Access to public records must be timely and affordable, and this legislation provides effective enforcement mechanisms to guarantee compliance by state agencies and municipalities,” said Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst. “Increasing transparency in government by improving our public records law promotes civic engagement to create a more inclusive and participatory democracy.”
The Senate bill limits the amount that state agencies and municipalities can charge for production of the records. The limits are set at 5 cents per page for copies, down from 20 to 50 cents per page under current law, and the cost of a storage device. The bill requires state agencies to provide four free hours of employee time and two free hours for municipalities. Charges for requests that require more time are limited to $25 per hour.
“Our democracy depends on a concerned, engaged and informed citizenry, which in turn depends on timely access to public information,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester. “The bill adopted today removes some decades old barriers, while balancing the public’s interest with the legitimate cost and procedural concerns of our municipalities. Neither the public nor our public officials should be unduly burdened in the seeking and disposition of public information.”
The Senate bill prohibits charging for records if the agency or municipality does not provide the record within 15 days of the request or does not respond to the requestor within ten days. It also requires punitive damages up to $5,000 if a court determines the government entity did not act in good faith.
Finally, the bill requires state entities and encourages municipalities to post online many commonly requested public records. In addition, records are required to be provided in electronic format unless requested otherwise.
“It is simply unacceptable that the media and ordinary citizens should face unreasonable delays and high fees to gain access to information that rightly belongs in the public domain,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester. “Government transparency and accessibility are fundamental to a healthy democracy. This important reform legislation will help bring the Commonwealth into the 21st century and strengthen the public trust in our government institutions.”
“An accessible, transparent government is fundamental to the democratic process,” said Sen. Karen E. Spilka, D-Ashland. “This bill strengthens our public records law to improve access and make the process of requesting records simpler, clearer and more fair. Thank you to my colleagues in the Senate and advocates on all sides of this issue for engaging in a collaborative effort to bring our public records law into the 21st century, while providing flexibility for municipalities and agencies.”
“With provisions to improve compliance and encourage electronic postings, this bill brings Massachusetts’s outdated public records law into the 21st century,” said Senator Joan Lovely, D-Salem. “Today, people access information much differently than they did 40 years ago, so this bill comprehensively updates our current law to reflect these changes and connect people with public information more efficiently.”