Gubernatorial candidates favor opening governor’s office records

  • Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker  AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

State House News Service
Published: 2/2/2022 10:46:16 PM
Modified: 2/2/2022 10:44:50 PM

BOSTON — The state’s public records overseer wants gubernatorial candidates to make opening up access to the top office’s documents a campaign trail pitch, and it turns out most are already on board with the idea.

A majority of the five declared candidates for governor confirmed Wednesday that they believe the office should be subject to the state’s public records law, which would make many emails, documents and other records accessible to interested parties by request and, potentially, a fee.

That would represent a shift for Massachusetts, which is the only state in the country where the governor’s office, the Legislature and the judiciary all claim that they are exempt from the public records law.

Shortly after he launched his latest reelection campaign, Secretary of State William Galvin announced he would seek legislation requiring the governor’s office – but not the Legislature or judiciary – to comply with the same transparency law that virtually all other government entities in Massachusetts must follow.

The bill would apply only to the governor’s office, forcing the top post to align itself with policies in place in most executive offices and agencies, and not to the House and Senate or judicial branch.

Galvin’s bill (SD 2981), which Acton Democrat Sen. Jamie Eldridge filed on the secretary’s behalf, would take effect on Jan. 5, 2023 when Gov. Charlie Baker’s successor takes office.

“I can’t fight the battle for the past,” Galvin, a Democrat, said in a Tuesday interview on GBH’s “Greater Boston” program. “I’d rather fight the battle we might be able to win for the future. I’m saying as of the day the new governor takes office, every record should be public. I think this should be an issue in the governor’s race. We should hear now from all the prospective governors that they’re going to do this.”

While governors have historically claimed their own offices are exempt from the public records law, most of the executive branch is subject to its provisions. Agencies across state government, ranging from the Department of Transportation to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, have online portals through which residents can request access to memos, emails and other records.

Public records may not have emerged as a lightning rod in the early days of the gubernatorial race, but Galvin’s call to action has support among most of the corner office hopefuls.

Attorney General Maura Healey and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, two of the three Democrats running for governor, have both backed changes that would subject the governor’s office to the public records law.

Healey, who as attorney general is responsible for enforcing the public records law, said via a spokesperson that she believes the governor’s office should fall under the umbrella of agencies and bodies subject to the law’s provisions. She stopped short of saying whether the Legislature and judiciary should also comply.

“AG Healey has long supported updating the public records law to cover the Governor’s Office in the interest of transparency and accountability,” said Healey spokesperson Jillian Fennimore.

Allen featured public records reform in the “Reimagining Democracy” agenda she released in January.

“Empowered voters need good information. To help residents understand what their elected officials are doing, and why, we will commit the Executive Branch to adhering to the requirements of the Open Records Act and to streamlining responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests,” Allen’s campaign website reads. “The executive branch currently claims to be exempt from public record laws passed in 1973 and enforced in relation to all 351 of the Commonwealth’s towns and cities. Under an Allen administration, the executive branch will lead by example on transparency and accountability and hold itself to the same standard to which we hold our municipalities.”

Like Healey, Allen did not explicitly indicate if she believes the House and Senate should also be compelled to comply with the public records law.

The third Democrat, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, did not take a clear position on Galvin’s proposal. Her campaign said only that Chang-Diaz has been a supporter of transparency in the Legislature and backed the 2016 records reform law, which Baker ultimately signed.

Both Republicans in the race, former Rep. Geoff Diehl and businessman Chris Doughty, said they believe the governor’s office as well as the Legislature should be subject to the public records law at least to some degree.

“I believe deeply in the need for government accountability and transparency,” Diehl said in a statement to the News Service. “Therefore, I think there should be openness with regard to access to public records in our state, and that should include the Governor’s Office and the Legislature. I recognize the need for certain limit(s) and exemptions, but the guiding principle should be a preference toward full disclosure. After all, it’s the people’s government!”

Said Doughty strategist Holly Robichaud, “As the next governor, Chris would support transparency and openness and having the public records law applied to the governor’s office and the Legislature.”

Robichaud added that Doughty also wants the state’s open meeting law, which requires timely disclosure about scheduled meetings and mandates public bodies to open most of their deliberations to the general public, to apply to the Legislature.

Beacon Hill power players have resisted previous efforts to expand public records access to the governor’s office, Legislature and judiciary.

Both Democrat and Republican governors have declared their offices exempt by citing a 1997 Supreme Judicial Court decision in the Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council case about court nominees, according to Galvin.

“The reality is there’s a fiefdom mentality. They don’t want to give up anything,” Galvin told GBH.” There’s a resistance, and you have to overcome that. That’s why the ability to go to court, the ability to get court costs and fees, is extremely important. The only remedy I have is to refer it for enforcement to the attorney general, and if the attorney general – and many of them have – decline to enforce it, that’s the end of it.”

Under the Galvin-Eldrige bill, the governor’s office could still withhold records if it cites an exemption covered by the public records law, such as one that prevents release of personnel and medical files, but it could no longer deem itself not covered.

“Secretary Galvin supports expanding the public records law to cover the Legislature as well, but he believes that there is more of an opportunity to get this bill passed now, since it is narrowly applied to the incoming governor and the Legislature has resisted attempts to expand the public records law to cover themselves,” a Galvin spokesperson said.

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