Public records reform bill remains under scrutiny, faces opposition from municipalities

Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Lawmakers are closer to drafting a bill to reform the state’s public records law, a measure that remains under review by the House Ways and Means Committee, according to state Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton.

“We are very close to a final draft,” Kocot, the bill’s chief sponsor, said Thursday. “We’re working very, very hard on this bill.”

Although many supporters advocated for a House vote on an earlier version this summer, lawmakers said more time was needed to address concerns from various constituencies, including cities and towns, the attorney general and secretary of state. The Massachusetts Municipal Association has argued that aspects of the bill could put added burdens and costs on communities.

The association issued an alert to members in July stating the bill would “impose greater burdens” and “unfunded mandates” on municipalities and state agencies. It urged local officials to contact lawmakers to express opposition to the bill.

“There has been pushback by the MMA and that has been difficult,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, an organization that advocates for open and accountable government. “Getting a stronger bill is becoming more difficult. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”

The proposed legislation seeks to reduce fees to obtain records, provide more electronic access and designate people in each state agency and municipality to handle records requests. It also would bring new enforcement measures and fines, require state agencies to post to their websites a list of all major databases and categories of records they maintain, as well as public records requests logs.

The bill as earlier proposed also sought to award attorneys’ fees if a person or group initially denied public records prevails in a court appeal. Massachusetts is one of only four states in the country that does not award attorneys’ fees in such cases. The secretary of state’s office has jurisdiction over enforcing compliance with the state’s Public Records Law.

“We’ve tried to be sensitive to all the parties (so) that whatever we put out works, and that whatever we do meshes with the goals of the secretary,” Kocot said.

Kocot said House lawmakers met Wednesday with representatives from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause to discuss the legislation, one a series of meetings on the bill in recent months. The sessions have focused primarily on the costs and time frame for record-keepers to review, segregate and redact public records — and the penalties and fines for not complying with the law.

Kocot said lawmakers are trying to establish a system of fees and penalties that is fair and recognizes the range of public records-keepers, from those in small towns who are making good-faith efforts to comply with the law with limited resources to large state agencies with robust IT systems, legal counsel and layers of staff.

“Those two ends of the spectrum are very, very different,” Kocot said.

He said a final draft of the bill could be ready for the House Ways and Means Committee to review within days.

Dan Crowley can be reached at


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