Column: Public Records Reform Necessary for Our Democracy

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis declared, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  A dynamic public records law helps shine the sunlight to which Justice Brandeis referred on the workings of our government, increasing transparency and empowering the citizens of Massachusetts in their efforts to hold their government accountable.  This value is at the foundation of a thriving democracy and is a requirement for achieving public trust in our government institutions.  More than forty years since its passage, our Commonwealth’s public records law is in need of improvement.

That’s why I sponsored a public records bill that – after clearing the House – recently passed the Senate.  The Senate legislation proposes four basic but necessary reforms: requiring searchable, electronic record storage; the designation of a public records officer to serve as the point person for public records requests; new caps on the imposition of fees; and, payment of attorneys’ fees to those who seek records and are wrongfully denied access to them.

This proposed law could be the first update to our public records law since 1973.  Think about that.  Back then, there was no Internet, no electronic records.  The world has changed, as has our government practices and information technology. Our public policy must keep up.  If it doesn’t, our government agencies may struggle to meet public expectations for records access, and our fine state and local government agencies run the risk of losing the public’s trust.

Recently, well-meaning institutions and government officials have struggled to meet public records requests that the public has a right to expect will be fulfilled.  More than half of our 351 cities and towns failed to meet the standards set in the law when replying to an exercise conducted recently by investigative journalist Mike Beaudet and his Northeastern University journalism class.  Two dozen communities even asked for more than $100 to fulfill what seemed to be simple requests, with one community demanding as much as $1,400.

In another example, one state agency requested $40,000 from the Boston Globe in order to produce a spreadsheet describing prior public records requests.  One of our cities estimated it would take $200,000 to produce information about parking tickets.  The Bay State Examiner was asked for an over-$700 “non-refundable research fee” by one state agency to determine what the actual fee for a public records request would be!  There are disappointingly numerous examples.

The media and ordinary citizens deserve and should expect reasonable access to information that rightly belongs in the public domain.  Our government agencies need better guidance and laws to direct them in meeting those requests.  I am thrilled that the Senate has passed this important reform legislation.  With the Massachusetts House of Representatives having passed a version of the bill late last year, the next step in the process is that there will be a six-person conference committee to hammer out differences between the two versions.  As the lead sponsor of the Senate legislation, I’ll be one of the six conferees.  My goal will be to come out of the conference committee with as robust a final bill as possible to best enhance state and local government transparency and accountability, and to further strengthen the public trust in our government institutions.