Public Record Advocates Make Noise on Beacon Hill

Journalists and open government advocates rallied in front of the Statehouse Thursday to push for changes to make access to public records faster, easier and cheaper.

Encouraged by event organizer Danielle McLean to “make noise,” volunteers from the crowd of roughly 40 demonstrators took turns sharing stories of when they were unjustly denied access to public information. Other demonstrators held signs that read “give us transparency now” and “let us do our jobs” and cheered on those who spoke.

Advocates called for reduced fees for public information, a 30-day timeframe for all public records requests, and a more straightforward appeals process that includes the mandatory reimbursement of attorney fees when action is required to free improperly withheld documents.

The demonstration came in advance of a state Senate hearing on legislation passed in the House in November that would refine public record guidelines on response times and fee caps for the first time in over 40 years.

Advocates argue the current bill still lacks enforcement and, in some ways, works against their cause.

“What the House passed is a good start,” said McLean, president of the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, at the rally. “But it is not nearly close enough. We need strong public records access laws. We need something more concrete.”

Massachusetts was recently ranked 40th in the nation and given a grade of F for public records access by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit and nonpartisan investigative news organization based out of Washington, D.C.

The current open records law requires a response to all public records requests within 10 days, but authors of the report said it can take weeks or months for a request to be filled. Some local and state agencies also charge anywhere from hundreds to, in some cases, millions of dollars to access.

Michael Morisy, founder of the collaborative and investigative news site, MuckRock, said at the rally he once waited two years and spent $400 on a simple PowerPoint presentation from the state. In another instance, Morisy said he was threatened with jail time after he published public record information that officials disagreed with.

Those seeking records have the option to appeal to the secretary of the commonwealth if their request goes unrecognized after 10 days, but the Bay State Examiner found that, on average, his office takes 59 days to close an appeal.

If denied, those seeking records can take legal action, but Massachusetts is one of three states where an individual cannot recoup their legal fees even after winning a lawsuit over withheld documents.

House Bill 3858 amends the open records law by extending the response time from 10 days to 60-75 days, depending on the agency or municipality handling the request. The bill also grants judges the discretion to reimburse attorney fees, but also places a 30-day statue of limitations on denied public records requests that restricts the amount of time one has to file a suit after being denied.

Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin said he had no comment on the rally or current public record laws because of the pending legislation in the Senate.

Prior to the rally, McLean said administrative fees act as an “information tax” meant to deter public records requests and create a class system between those who can afford the fees, and those who cannot. And when requests are denied, she said, chasing a lawsuit is costly and time-consuming, creating another barrier to the information.

“We feel that these public records are our records. As journalists, a lot of our reporting has to do with providing accuracy and clarity and to shine a light on what’s actually happening, and a big way to do that is by having these records,” McLean said. “The state can’t keep hiding in the dark like they’ve been doing.”

Morisy said his company spends hundreds of dollars each month gathering records that should be free to the public, and has even had to crowdfund a few stories that came with more financial straits.

“If we’re going to talk about having an informed democracy, the informed part really is driven by public access to what that democracy is up to,” Morisy said.

A group of senators has been crafting new amendments for the legislation which address “some of the areas of concern, including attorney fees, cost of gathering the records, timelines and enforcement” said Peter Wilson, press secretary for Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, before the rally.

“The Senate president has said he believes it is time to update our public records law,” Wilson said. “He believes that people deserve access to information from public officials in a reasonable and timely manner. [The senators] have done an extensive job of taking those concerns into consideration and we’re hopeful for a strong bill to come out.”

The Senate President was unable to attend Thursday night’s event because of the State of the Commonwealth address.

McLean said she hopes advocates will reach out to their respective senators to lobby for a more comprehensive bill.

“[Agencies] work for us,” she said. “They work for the taxpayer and we have the right to check on how our employees are doing, and to make sure they’re not abusing their power. And there has been a lot of abuse in this state. It’s insane how secretive this state has become.”

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