Editorial: Proposed records reform gives citizens their due

Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2015

Transparency in civic life isn’t a partisan issue. This month, Gov. Charlie Baker demanded it of leaders of Boston 2024, the private group trying to bring the Olympics to Massachusetts. And he pledged in January that the Massachusetts Health Connector would be straightforward about the costs of administering affordable care.

Last year, former Gov. Deval Patrick introduced MassResults, a website that posted performance reviews of cabinet secretaries and included links to the state’s Open Checkbook site, representing what the Pioneer Institute called a “step forward” in public access to information. When he took office in January 2007, Patrick gave his inaugural address outside the Statehouse facing the Boston Common so more people could listen, signaling a commitment to open government.

The golden dome should invite citizen access to what lies within, not throw up a barrier. Opening the doors requires not just discreet actions like the ones described above, but a broad and consistent openness backed by state law and official policies.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts has not significantly updated its public records laws since Jimmy Carter was president.

State Rep. Peter V. Kocot has joined with 44 other House lawmakers to fix that, filing H. 2846 to update Chapter 66 of the state’s laws to make it easier, faster and cheaper for citizens to gain access to something they already own: state records.

The measure, which Kocot and others developed after studying the public records practices in 35 states, deserves to be approved this legislative session.

Under the current law, needless barriers remain between citizens (including journalists operating in the public interest) and information they seek.

One barrier is time. The law now gives public agencies 10 days to initially respond to a request for records; the proposed law allows 15 days for actually delivering the information. Another is cost. The bill sets a cap for copying fees at 5 cents a page, down from 20 cents. Ideally, as Kocot points out, knowing what lies in public records should not cost the public anything.

The Northampton lawmaker’s bill is the first major reform of Chapter 66 since the advent of the Internet. It calls for government to embrace that technology and provide online search tools for certain types of databases, some of which already exist, reducing the need for written requests that needlessly chew up the time of private citizens and public officials alike.

Further, the bill calls for newly designated custodians of public records to act not as opponents of those seeking information but as their allies.

The reforms direct custodians to help people understand what types of records will inform them and guide them in focusing their requests. This will increase the efficiency of records retrieval and make sure the documents answer questions petitioners have.

The bill’s most critical provision is its teeth. Custodians of public documents who fail to produce them in response to a request that’s been upheld by the state’s supervisor of records would face fines of up to $100 a day.

And people who turn to the courts for relief in a records battle would be eligible to recover legal costs.

Massachusetts is today one of just four states that do not award damages to people who prevail in court fights for public records, according to Common Cause Massachusetts.

Imposing financial penalties will discourage backsliding by governmental representatives and give people with legitimate records claims the courage to fight on.

These aren’t enemies of the people. They are the people. Their engagement with government should be applauded, not obstructed.

When governments fail to share public information, they invite distrust. Massachusetts is playing catch-up here. Kocot is counting on support from colleagues in senior legislative positions to get his bill into law.

If they let him down, they should not call themselves leaders.


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