By Robert J. Ambrogi
Just in time for Sunshine Week, March 16-22, a legislative committee has issued a favorable report on a bill to improve public access to government records. If enacted into law, the bill would provide long-overdue updates to the state's public-records law and help ensure that government entities are accountable for responding to records requests in a timely and useful manner.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to draw attention to the importance of open government and freedom of information. The name derives from the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a Massachusetts native who famously wrote in 1913, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
In Massachusetts, two sets of laws are intended to encourage this ideal of open government -- the open-meetings law and the public-records law. Together, these laws promote greater accountability of government, a more informed citizenry and a healthier democracy.
Massachusetts first enacted a public-records law in 1851. That early law was limited in its reach and effectiveness. In 1973, the legislature passed a comprehensive revision of the law, greatly expanding the scope of records it covered and the rights of the public to obtain those records.
While that 1973 revision was significant, the law has changed little in the four decades since. Meanwhile, those decades have brought fundamental changes in how government makes, stores and accesses records.
Technology is not all that has changed in 40 years. Government has grown more complex and its records more vast. Government officials are more sensitive to issues of security and confidentiality. For citizens seeking to obtain government records, these changes can make it difficult to get a satisfactory response -- or in some cases to get a response at all.
On March 6, the legislature's Joint Committee on State Administration favorably reported out a bill (House Bill 3945) that would address many of these anachronisms. Sponsored and written by Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, the co-chair of the committee, the bill would both modernize and strengthen the public-records law while leaving its scope and purpose intact.
To address changes in technology, the bill would revise the current law in several ways. For one, it would require that records kept electronically also be made available electronically, if requested. Electronic records often contain information that is lost when printed out and delivered on paper. For another, it would require that electronic records be available to the public in a commonly accessible format.
From the perspective of citizen access, a key provision of the bill is its requirement that every state agency designate a "records access officer." This would be an agency's point person for receiving and responding to records requests. Agencies would be required to post the officer's name and contact information conspicuously in offices and online. At last, the public would know with certainty where the buck stops on records requests.
The bill would also address a common hurdle to obtaining public records: the cost of making copies. Under current law, the government may charge 20 cents per page for photocopies and 50 cents per page for computer printouts, plus fees for the time spent searching physical and computer records. These search fees can vary widely and are sometimes outrageously high. Kocot's bill would reduce these fees overall and impose limits to keep them from becoming unreasonable.
One other critical issue the bill addresses is legal costs. Currently, if your records request is turned down and you go to court to enforce the law, you must foot the cost yourself. Few members of the public can afford this expense. Under this bill, if you prevail in your court action, you will be able to recover your attorneys' fees and legal costs. This is the practice in most other states.
Kocot's bill has the support of several organizations that actively work to encourage open government, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Sunshine Week is an opportunity to consider the importance to our democracy of open access to government documents and proceedings. This bill provides an opportunity to do something about it. This Sunshine Week, let your legislators know that you support a stronger public-records law in Massachusetts.
Robert J. Ambrogi is the executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.