Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo is saying he wants a vote on an overhaul of the state public records law soon, before the Legislature adjourns in two weeks for the holidays.
“We’re working on, first of all, the public records law. I very much would like us to take care of that,” DeLeo told the State House News Service.
Pardon our skepticism but we’ve heard that before. Legislative leaders are always “eager” for public records reform -- until it actually comes time to vote.
It’s why we haven’t had any meaningful improvement in the public’s ability to access official records in more than 40 years.
Government officials at the state and local levels, including police, would rather there were no public records at all. Then, it would be easy to hide misspent funds, embarrassing gaffes and illegal behavior from the public’s view.
Even the current weak Massachusetts public records law is too much for them to bear. So they have devised creative ways to circumvent it. Government entities routinely ignore requests for documents that the public has a right to see. A common strategy is to charge outlandish copying fees that are usually enough to make all but the deep-pocketed abandon their requests.
A reasonable proposal to improve public access to public records emerged early this summer. But a vote on the measure was put off after lobbying on behalf of municipal governments.
The bill filed by state Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, and state Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, would impose limits on fees for requests of government records. Cities, towns and government agencies would be required to appoint someone to handle such requests and make available electronic versions of documents. The bill would, for the first time, impose a sort of penalty for failing to comply with the law. Local officials would be forced to pay legal fees if they deny a request for documents and the decision is successfully challenged in court. Another aspect of the bill would allow courts to impose a fine of $20 a day for the first 30 days of refusing or neglecting to fulfill a request, and $50 a day thereafter.
The House was scheduled to vote on the bill in July. But after an intense lobbying effort by the Massachusetts Municipal Association put off a vote until after the Legislature’s summer recess.
Upon legislators’ return, the bill again appeared headed for a vote at the end of September. That vote has yet to take place.
Enough is enough.
Public records reform in Massachusetts is long overdue. The people have the right to access the records of their government and its agencies. That is fundamental to the operation of a democratic republic. But the legislative leadership seems more eager to please their allies in municipal government than to secure the rights of the people.
Speaker DeLeo needs to bring public records reform -- real reform, not a watered-down substitute -- to a vote before the session ends for the holidays. And Senate President Stanley Rosenberg needs to follow through promptly to get the bill to the governor’s desk.
This overdue reform has been put off long enough.