The Massachusetts State Senate this week unanimously passed legislation reforming how the state handles public records. The legislation, originally sponsored by Senator Jason Lewis, is the first update to the public records law since the early 1970’s.
The legislation will reduce costs for those requesting public records, as well as ensure timely compliance with public records requests. The bill also brings Massachusetts in line with 47 other states and the federal government in allowing attorney’s fees to be awarded to plaintiffs who are victorious in court when denied records. The bill requires attorney fees to be awarded, except in certain defined situations.
“It is simply unacceptable that the media and ordinary citizens should face unreasonable delays and high fees to gain access to information that rightly belongs in the public domain,” said Senator Lewis. “Government transparency and accessibility are fundamental to a healthy democracy. This important reform legislation will help bring the Commonwealth into the 21st century and strengthen the public trust in our government institutions.”
“This legislation implements meaningful public records reform for the first time in more than 40 years. Access to public records must be timely and affordable, and this legislation provides effective enforcement mechanisms to guarantee compliance by state agencies and municipalities. Increasing transparency in government by improving our public records law promotes civic engagement to create a more inclusive and participatory democracy,” added Senate President Stan Rosenberg.
Under the legislation, each state agency and municipality is required to appoint at least one public records access officer to serve as the point of contact for all public records requests and coordinate a timely and thorough response. The public records officer does not have to be a new employee.
The bill limits the amount that state agencies and municipalities can charge for production of the records. The limits are set at five cents per page for copies, down from twenty to fifty cents per page under current law, and the cost of a storage device. The bill requires state agencies to provide four free hours of employee time and two free hours for municipalities. Charges for requests that require more time are limited to $25 per hour, except in limited circumstances when additional charges are deemed necessary to achieve compliance and not designed to deter or limit access.
The bill prohibits charging for records if the agency or municipality does not provide the record within fifteen days of the request or does not respond to the requestor within ten days. It also requires punitive damages up to $5,000 if a court determines the government entity did not act in good faith.
Finally, the bill requires state entities and encourages municipalities to post online many commonly requested public records. In addition, records are required to be provided in electronic format unless requested otherwise.
The bill will now be reconciled in a conference committee with the version of the legislation passed by the House of Representatives before being sent to the Governor.