Yesterday, the Senate Ways and Means committee passed a strong bill to fix our broken public records law, An Act to Improve Access to Public Records, S.2120. The bill is significantly stronger than the House passed version in November. We urge the full Senate to support the new bill and oppose any weakening amendments when it comes up for a floor vote next week.
Transparency in government is the cornerstone to a strong democracy. It checks corruption, promotes fiscal responsibility and efficiency, and allows for greater, more meaningful participation in our democratic system.
In November, the Center for Public Integrity released a report that gave the commonwealth an F on public access to government information for the second time in a row.
Organizations, reporters, watchdogs, and regular citizens who wish to see and review public documents are frequently unable to do so, prevented by outright denials, excessive charges, records in useless formats, and long delays in which the requested records never materialize or do so in an untimely manner. The public records law hasn’t been substantially updated since 1973.
The proposed legislation pending in the Senate would give courts the ability to enforce the law by awarding attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public records, which would bring Massachusetts in line with forty-seven other states. It would set strict limits on how much government agencies can charge for public record information, and would set reasonable time-frames for responses to public records requests.
The bill would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law, strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement, and make other changes.
Specifically, the legislation would:
- Require courts to award attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied.
- Limit to $25/hour the fees municipalities and state agencies can charge for time spent responding to requests.
- Limit charges for time spent to review and withhold information from the public, permitting such charges only for information that is required to be withheld by statute (for example, medical information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)).
- Provide for reasonable response times for records requests. The proposed legislation would require agencies to substantively respond within 10 days, and to fully comply within 15 days of the initial request, or 30 days for more complicated matters. If additional time is needed, agencies and municipalities may petition to the supervisor of public records for an additional 30 day extension.
- Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
- Require agencies and municipalities to make electronic documents available in electronic form.
The bill must be voted on by the full Senate and any differences between the House and Senate passed bills will be worked out by a 6 person conference committee, before action is taken by Governor Baker.