After considering some 50 amendments to the popular legislation, the Massachusetts state senate today unanimously voted to approve strong public records reform legislation. Following the passage of weaker legislation from the house, the two chambers must now meet to hammer out a compromise.
The stronger senate legislation fixes the primary problem with Massachusetts public records law, currently among the weakest in the nation, by providing a mechanism for requesters to obtain attorney’s fees if they are inappropriately denied access and forced to sue.
The ACLU of Massachusetts press release announcing today’s victory contains more details about the senate bill:
Senate Bill 2120, “An Act improving the administration and enforcement of the public records law,” would make a number of improvements to existing law, including the following key provisions:
– Enable courts to award attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied–an enforcement method already adopted by 47 other states;
– Require attorneys’ fees in limited circumstances when a requester obtains relief through a judicial order or consent decree;
– Limit to $25/hour the fees municipalities and state agencies can charge for time spent responding to requests, but give the supervisor of public records authority to allow municipalities to charge higher fees on a case-by-case basis;
– Limit charges for time spent to review and withhold information from the public, permitting such charges only for information that is required to be withheld by statute (for example, medical information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), unless the supervisor approves charges for additional redaction on a case-by-case basis;
– Provide for reasonable response times for records requests. The legislation would require agencies to substantively respond within 10 days, and to fully comply within 15 days of the initial request, or 30 days for more complicated matters. If additional time is needed, agencies and municipalities may petition to the supervisor of public records for an additional 30-day extension;
– Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests;
– Require agencies and municipalities to make electronic documents available in electronic form.
If you called your senators in recent days to support these important reforms, thank you. Your voice was heard. Now we need to make sure the final bill promotes the public interest and government transparency, to get Massachusetts to climb from the bottom. Currently we are among the worst in the nation on transparency, scoring an “F” from the Sunlight Foundation multiple years in a row. Strong public records reform will go a long way towards bringing up that failing grade, and more importantly, advancing accountability and democracy in the Bay State.
After all, as Senate President Stan Rosenberg said right after the vote, access to public records is a “fundamental principle of our government system.”
Victory is sweet!