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Chair: Reform bill would ease access to public records

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — The first major overhaul of the state’s public records law in over 40 years appears to be climbing to the top of the House’s priority list with a bill being teed up late Wednesday that would reduce the cost of accessing records and give the public legal recourse if they are wrongly denied.

Asked to confirm that a bill was advancing, Rep. Peter Kocot, co-chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, told the News Service a poll had been opened on a redrafted version of his bill (H 2772) that would lower the cost of obtaining printed copies of public record to no more than 5 cents per page.

The bill would also prevent agencies or municipals governments from charging search and production fees unless it requires more than two hours of work, and requires agencies, cities and towns to have a records access officer to serve as a point person for responses to requests.

“It’s the first real reform or redraft of this portion of the general laws since 1973. We’re trying to improve the way the current law works and increase public access to information,” Kocot said.

Kocot said the “real important” part of the bill is a change that would direct the courts to award plaintiffs challenging a wrongful denial of access to public records reasonable attorney fees.

Massachusetts is one of just four states that doesn’t allow for attorney fees to be recouped, including Alabama, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“So we’re coming in from the prairie here,” Kocot said, adding, “There’s going to be a real incentive here for (agencies) to follow the law. People shouldn’t have to pay for a lawyer to get basic stuff their tax dollars already paid for.”

The bill does not address the Legislature’s exemption from the public records law, which some government reform advocates have pushed to eliminate.

Kocot said that each of the 200 offices of lawmakers handle sensitive constituent information on a daily basis. Opening access to government records without compromising that data remains an issue that requires study, he said.

Describing the decision to postpone a decision on that issue as a “consensus” among the groups that worked with legislators on the bill – including the ACLU, Common Cause Massachusetts and Newspaper Publishers Association – Kocot said the “next step” would be to review how other states handle public records for their legislative bodies and constitutional officers for possible action “up the road.”

Though House leaders could not provide a definitive timetable for the bill to emerge for a floor vote, Kocot said he was optimistic it would surface in the House soon. The poll for committee members closes tomorrow afternoon.

“Speaker (Robert) DeLeo supports modernizing our public records laws and awaits the decision of the committee,” said Seth Gitell, a spokesman for DeLeo.

Committee co-chair Sen. Joan Lovely could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon, but a spokesman for Senate President Stanley Rosenberg confirmed that she would be briefing senators on the issue during an informal Democratic caucus on Thursday.

The bill would also require government agencies to comply with public records requests within 15 days, except in “exception circumstances” that include requests totaling over 500 pages of material or more than 20 hours of staff work.

Fees cannot be charged for the time associated with redacting information from public documents that can be legally concealed, under the bill, and fees for copying and production of requested records shall be waived if the information is in the public interest.

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