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BOSTON – The Massachusetts House voted unanimously in support of H.4333, a much needed overhaul of the Commonwealth's public records law, which has not been updated since 1973. The bill strengthens state and local government transparency and accountability, and promotes citizen participation.
The current public records law is clearly broken. Last year, 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.
“Transparency in government is the cornerstone of a strong democracy,” said Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG’s Legislative Director. “Government transparency checks corruption, promotes fiscal responsibility and efficiency, and allows for greater, more meaningful participation in our democratic system.”
Currently, 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. “Passage of the bill will bring our public records law into the 21st century and ensure that public records are actually public,” said Cummings.
The bill now heads to the Senate for a possible vote tomorrow and then, if passed, to Governor Baker for his approval.
The bill to update the public records law and make government more transparent:
- Enables courts to award attorneys’ fees when government agencies wrongly deny access to public records, bringing Massachusetts in line with 47 other states.
- Establishes a presumption in favor of such awards, except in cases where agencies base their denial on judicial precedent; if the Supervisor of Public Records finds no violation of the law; or for requests made for a harassing or commercial (non-media) purpose;
- Limits to $25/hour the fees municipalities and state agencies can charge for time spent responding to requests, while allowing the Supervisor of Public Records to authorize municipalities to charge higher fees to cover greater actual costs in certain circumstances;
- Limits charges for time spent to review and withhold information from the public, generally permitting such charges only for information required to be withheld by statute, such as medical information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA);
- Provides for reasonable response times for records requests. The proposed legislation would require agencies and municipalities to substantively respond within 10 business days. Agencies must fully comply within 15 business days of the initial request, and municipalities within 25 business days. Agencies and municipalities that need additional time may petition the Supervisor of Public Records for an additional limited extension;
- Directs agencies to assign a "records access officer" to streamline responses to public records requests;
- Requires agencies and municipalities to make electronic documents available in electronic form, and requires state agencies to post common public records online;
- Establishes a commission to study public accessibility and the transparency of the legislative process, and to examine the constitutionality and practicality of applying the public records law to the legislature, the Governor’s office, and the courts.
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