BOSTON — News media representatives lobbied a legislative committee Tuesday, hoping to relegate to history the current, often slow and expensive process of obtaining official government records.
“I’ve long been puzzled, frankly, that Massachusetts lags behind so many other states, and somewhat embarrassed, frankly, that Massachusetts lags behind so many other states in the strength of our public records laws and enforcement of them,” Robert Bertsche, general counsel to the New England Newspaper and Press Association, told the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.
While computer technology has allowed individuals to call up information with their fingertips, people seeking public records from government entities are often given piles of print-outs and a bill for 20 cents a sheet, if the public agency approves the request. State courts routinely charge $1 per page.
The Associated Press, an international wire service, and Muck Rock, a Boston-based service for filing public records requests, were joined by Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts backing legislation (H 2846) filed by House Chairman Peter Kocot that would ease access to records.
The bill would require every state agency to designate a records access officer, lower the cost of copy pages to 5 to 7 cents each, and require the custodian of records to make electronic copies of the documents available, when possible.
No one spoke out against the proposed reforms, and Senate Chairman Ken Donnelly said the committee would “take a look” at the proposals before it, while highlighting some concern he has on the ability of small municipalities to comply with the provisions of the bill.
Attorney Robert Ambrogi, who testified in favor of Kocot’s reform proposal, also spoke out against a proposal by Sen. James Timilty to specifically exempt disciplinary investigations in police departments from the law. The Appeals Court has ruled internal affairs are subject to the public records law.
“Without provisions in place, which this bill would provide, financial roadblocks can make it difficult for members of the public, including the press, to obtain information that’s rightfully theirs,” said AP Assistant Bureau Chief for New England Ebony Reed. She said, “Members of the press are the public. We represent citizens and provide a watchdog function of government.”
The bill would also allow people who go to court in pursuit of public records to seek attorneys’ fees if they prevail, which advocates said would provide an “economic incentive” for compliance.
“I’m in the trenches every day filing these requests, and mostly getting denied or not answered at all,” said Sean Musgrave, Muck Rock projects editor, who said agencies have told his organizations they don’t take public records requests and put them into “spam folders for deletion.” He said when he testified in 2011, the average public records response time was 34 days, three times the statutory 10-day deadline, and it has only grown worse since, so the average response time is now 76 days.
Kocot’s bill would also establish a commission to examine the public’s access to the Legislature’s business.
The Legislature is exempt from the public records law and the Open Meeting Law, and Gov. Deval Patrick’s office cites a court decision that exempts his office from the records law, though an administration officials has said that in practice it “voluntarily” complies.
The laws require public access to local and state board and commission meetings and governmental documents, except for specific instances, such as personnel records and matters under investigation.
Rep. Antonio Cabral, who has a package of reforms to the open meeting and public records laws (H 2783/2784/2786/2787), said that a 2009 law that overhauled the open meeting law wound up weakening one provision.
During deliberations, lawmakers sought to establish monetary penalties for officials who violate the meeting law and limited punishments to “intentional” violations to limit concerns. The punishment for individuals was dropped from the final version of the law, while the language specifying “intentional” violations remained, Cabral said.
“There had never been an ‘intentional’ requirement. As a result of that we weakened rather than strengthened the law in that particular case,” Cabral said. He said, “I assume it was a mistake, but it’s a mistake people seem to like right now, because it’s not effective.”
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a mistake. There were a lot of different parties involved,” Kocot told the News Service. He said, “You had many different re-drafts and that was compromise language that all of the groups worked on.”
Cabral said his legislation would remove the “intentional” threshold, allow the attorney general to “reprimand” individuals who violate the law, and encourage posting of public records online so that agencies could “pre-empt” requests for information.
Another Cabral proposal (H 2787) would give the supervisor of public records more power, increase the penalty for illegally destroying documents, and establish a commission to appoint and oversee the supervisor, who is currently the appointee of the secretary of state.
“We have seen incredible deference on the part of the supervisor of public records to agencies, particularly to law enforcement agencies,” said Musgrave.
Bertsche said a point-person at every agency to handle public records requests would remove what can be a fraught decision for state workers who may not know the law.
“I think fear is often what impedes compliance, not willful disregard of the law. It’s a lack of knowledge about what is the right thing to do: Are they really entitled to this document?” Bertsche said.