State Lawmakers Consider Fixes Tuesday for Broken Public Records Law

Massachusetts trails most states in making information available to reporters and concerned citizens on how government is working

May 26, 2015 3:00 pm

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BOSTON — The Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight holds a hearing Tuesday on legislation to reform the state public records law, amid recent concern over the difficulty of accessing public information that ranges from information about DUI arrests of police officers, management and operations at the MBTA, and issues of public safety. The hearing on “An Act to Improve Access to Public Records,” filed by Rep. Peter Kocot (H.2772) & Sen. Jason Lewis (S.1676), begins May 26 at 11am in room B-1 of the Massachusetts State House.

“Simply put, our public records law is broken,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “Journalists, concerned citizens, and others with a need–and right–to know how our government is working are being shut out by a law that hasn’t been meaningfully updated in more than 40 years. We must fix it.”

Existing Massachusetts law regarding access to government information dates to 1973, well before the digital age. High fees, unnecessary delays and obstructions, and lack of accountability for record-keepers prevent journalists and concerned citizens from obtaining information about government that should be readily available.

“Massachusetts has one of the weakest public records laws in the nation, so some officials simply decide not to follow it and know there won’t be any consequences,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Ducking, dodging, delaying, and denying access has become the norm. The bill put forward by Rep. Kocot and Sen. Lewis is must-pass legislation for everyone in Massachusetts who cares about good government.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts, a member of the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance (MassFOIA)–which includes more than 35 organizational advocates for children and education, the environment, health care, consumer protection, civil rights, open democracy and journalism–endorses this legislation.

Based on solutions from other jurisdictions, the bill would make improvements including:

1) Incentivize compliance by providing attorneys’ fees to successful plaintiffs–like 46 other states and federal FOIA;

2) Make records access affordable–charges should reflect the actual cost of producing the records and not be inflated with extra fees for reviewing and withholding information;

3) Waive fees for public interest requests–just like under federal FOIA;

4) Provide documents electronically–by both making records available in their native electronic format and proactively publishing public information online;

5) Assign records access officers at each agency–having a point person makes it easier for agencies to handle requests knowledgeably and efficiently.

Lawmakers will hear about the need to pass public records law reform from an array of speakers, ranging from journalists to representatives of nonprofit organizations working on issues of public concern. Speakers include:

– Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts;

– Gavi Wolfe and Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts;

– Scott Allen, Boston Globe Spotlight Team;

– Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG;

– Christian Miron, NARAL;

– Bob Ambrogi, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association;

– Bill Ketter, Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association & Academy of New England Journalists;

– Carolyn Lee, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts;

– Shawn Musgrave, MuckRock;

– Justin Silverman, New England First Amendment Coalition;

– Rahsaan Hall, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice;

– David Milton, civil rights attorney (Law Offices of Howard Friedman);

– Ben Wright, Progressive Massachusetts;

– Leslie Walker, Prisoners’ Legal Services;

– Sean Driscoll, Cape Cod Times;

– Rob Bertsche, New England Newspaper & Press Association; and

– Arline Isaacson, Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus

For more information about “An Act to Improve Access to Public Records,” go to:

For more information about the ACLU of Massachusetts, go to:

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