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October 17, 2013

Media pushes to have easier access to public records

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.

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