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Massachusetts public records reform bill nears vote amid intense lobbying



Wednesday, July 22, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — House lawmakers could vote on a high-profile public records reform bill next week that includes new language to address some critical concerns voiced by small-town officials, according to state Rep. Peter V. Kocot, one of the chief architects of the legislation.

The bill moved out of a joint committee last week and is under review by the House Ways and Means Committee, with its next stop a potential vote on the House floor.

“It’s my hope the bill is up for a vote,” Kocot, D-Northampton, said Monday. “The law is broken. We need to fix it. The time to do it is now.”

Meantime, lobbying over the bill has intensified during the past week, with competing interest groups pushing for and against the proposed reforms. The Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) issued an alert to its members Friday stating the bill would “impose greater burdens” and “unfunded mandates” on municipalities and state agencies. The group urged local officials to contact lawmakers to express opposition to the bill.

“We don’t oppose updating the Public Records Law,” Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the MMA said Tuesday. “Just making sure communities have the resources and ability to comply going forward.”

The MMA’s dispatch prompted a volley by the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association on Monday, which said lobbying from the municipal ranks has put the bill in danger and threatens its passage.

“They had a whole laundry list of objections to the bill,” Robert J. Ambrogi, the association’s executive director, said of the MMA. “Some of the objections don’t make sense.”

Proposed updates

The state’s current Public Records Law has not been reviewed or changed substantially since the 1970s and lags behind many other states in many areas of government transparency. Massachusetts is one of only four states in the country that doesn’t award attorney’s fees if a person or group denied public records prevails in a court appeal, which is one area the bill would change.

The proposed legislation seeks to reduce fees for records, provide more electronic access and designate point people in each state agency and municipality to handle records requests. Photocopies would drop to 5 cents from 20 cents per letter-size page and to 50 cents for a computer printout, for example.

The legislation also aims to put some teeth into the law with new enforcement measures and fines. It would require state agencies to post on their websites a list of all major databases and categories of records they maintain, as well as their public records request logs.

“Very little in this bill adds to the responsibilities of municipalities,” Kocot explained. “And nothing in it changes what information has to be made public. All it basically asks them to do is comply with the law.”

Objections voiced

At an annual conference for municipal leaders in Northampton in March, several local officials vented about what they viewed as burdensome requirements for releasing public information associated with the state’s Open Meeting Law. Some said the law allows people angry with local government to harass public officials with repeated requests for meeting minutes, which are a public record.

In its alert last week, the MMA cited nearly a dozen objections to the proposed bill, stating that it “slashes” reimbursement costs for producing records; mandates records custodians comply fully with the law within 15 days; institutes fines for non-compliance; awards attorney’s fees and appoints public records officers with new duties, among others.

The MMA contends the bill would impede local officials’ capacity to administer and manage daily municipal operations and would impose new unfunded mandates.

“Some of the things might just be a question of interpretation and intent,” Beckwith said of the concerns the MMA has with some of the bill’s language.

In the spirit of compromise, Kocot said lawmakers have amended the bill to allow cities and towns to petition the state’s supervisor of records for more time — up to 30 days — to respond to public records requests under exceptional circumstances. Such circumstances would include requests for documents over 500 pages or requests that require significant staff time to prepare. The amended language also includes a supplemental fee structure that would allow municipalities or state agencies to charge higher fees in those circumstances, he said.

“We made a very good-faith effort to respond to those claims by towns that the Public Records Law could in some cases be a great burden to them,” Kocot said. “Under the existing law towns don’t have that opportunity.”

Kocot said he was willing to work with the MMA to discuss the concerns it made public to lawmakers after the bill moved out of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, of which Kocot is chairman. The committee has jurisdiction of the Public Records Law.

Beckwith said he has spoken and met with Kocot, whom he described as open and willing to hear the MMA’s concerns.

“We’re engaged in a good discussion,” Beckwith said. “We’re hoping that this process is able to have everyone on common ground in the end.”

Ambrogi, of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said allowing public records custodians to petition the supervisor of records for more time is one thing. But, he said, not setting a time limit for the state to respond to those petitions could bring greater delays to fulfilling requests.

“I’m not thrilled with that change in the (bill) at all,” he said. “There has to be some kind of deadline for the Secretary of State’s Office to respond to these requests.”

The lack of a deadline for such appeals at the state level could delay fulfilling public records requests “by months, if not longer,” he said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.