Senate Update of Open Record Laws Hailed

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Feb. 1, 2016

While local legislators and open record advocates are praising the Senate’s proposed public records bill, saying it enhances government accountability and makes records easier and cheaper to access, some officials believe the bill will be expensive for cities and towns.

“This legislation may sound good, but the process of implementing it would be far too burdensome for communities and taxpayers,” said Geoffery Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Changes in the state’s public records law came to the forefront for the first time in almost 40 years after Massachusetts was ranked 40th in the nation in November and given a grade of “F” for public records access by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit and nonpartisan investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.

Current law requires a response to all records requests within 10 days, but authors of the center’s report said it can take weeks or months for a request to be filled, and agencies that don’t comply with deadlines rarely face repercussions. Some local and state agencies also charge up to hundreds of dollars for access.

The House approved its own public records legislation at the end of last year, but was criticized by advocates who said the bill did not go far enough to ensure access to records in a timely and affordable manner.

The Senate bill significantly reduces response times for public records access, requiring compliance within 15 days of the initial request. If the deadline cannot be met, officials are allowed an extension of 15 days, but must notify requestors of this change.

After 30 days, officials may apply for a single, 30-day extension from the supervisor of records if needed. All requests must be handled within a maximum of 60 days.

The House bill would give agencies and municipalities 60 to 75 days to comply, with the option of applying for an unlimited deadline extension by the secretary of state.

The Senate bill also limits administrative fees for access to records to a maximum of $25 per hour. State agencies are required to provide four free hours of employee time in producing the records, while municipalities must provide two free hours of employee time. The bill prevents any office from charging a fee for records produced after the 15-day deadline unless the requestor is notified of the delay.

The Senate bill also eliminates the 30-day statute of limitations on appeals against denied requests in the House version, and requires the reimbursement of attorney fees in cases where documents are found to be improperly withheld. Municipalities found to have acted illegally could face fines of up to $5,000 in punitive damages.

Robert Ambrogi of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association said he was pleased to see a bill that would reduce the cost of records and reimburse attorney’s fees when an appeal is brought to court — two issues that have deterred requests in the past.

“They’ve done a good job addressing a lot of the key issues,” Ambrogi said. “They’re trying to make fees more reasonable under the law, they’ve mandated the public records access officers … and they’ve clarified the procedure for appealing denials of records. So far, it looks pretty good to me.”

Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, applauded the efforts of the Senate and said the Legislature is “fully committed” to reforming public records law.

Senators had until 5 p.m. Monday to file amendments before the bill is taken up in a full Senate debate Thursday.

“While I am still reviewing the most recent draft of the proposed public records legislation, I can say at first glance there are a lot of good aspects and changes to the Senate version of this bill,” Ross said in an email. “Over the course of the next few days, I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that both the needs of the public and our municipalities are met.”

But Beckwith said the bill would impose a financial burden and “unrealistic” timeliness on public entities, forcing them to shift resources away from other duties.

Beckwith said his association supports passage of a public records bill, but he would like to see the Senate develop more-balanced legislation, like the House bill passed in November.

“(The House bill) strengthened the public records law, but it did so in a way that it provided enough flexibility in terms of time, reimbursement of cost and judicial discretion,” he said.

Although he’s only been in office for three weeks, Attleboro City Clerk Stephen Withers said that after talking with his staff, he doesn’t foresee the legislation causing too much stress on his department.

“I can see how certain requests could be burdensome,” he said. “But I think that anything that came up, we would be able to handle. I feel pretty confident about that.”


Understanding the ‘Euromaiden’ Protests in Ukraine

Originally reported on on February 24, 2014

Google “Ukraine” and instantly your screen will be consumed with riots, protests, opposition movements, and more. Open up the newspaper, and it’s no different. After months of civil unrest and increasing violence, Ukraine’s ‘Euromaidan’ protests are dominating international news as the rest of the world awaits reports of what seems to be an unpredictable peace.

What started as protests against the suspension of many years worth of negotiations with the European Union for a roadmap to membership, soon turned into a revolt hoping to overthrow the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and his followers. How did it escalate so quickly, and when will there be peace in Kiev?


The Start of a Revolution

Ukraine’s ‘Euromaidan’ began in November 2013, after President Viktor Yanukovych’s government neglected to sign an Association Agreement and a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, in favor of closer economic relations with Russia. The plan, which had undergone negotiations since 1999, sought to further integrate Ukraine into the EU in the areas of justice, freedom and security. Part of the agreement included a reform of the Ukrainian judicial system, law enforcement agencies, election system, and would enact stronger measures to fight the rampent corruption in the country.

Protesters in favor of the EU agreement gathered in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, in hopes of reinstating negotiations, charging President Yanukovych with accusations that he is unwilling to enact constitutional reforms that would limit his power. Once met with severe anti-protest laws and police brutality towards protesters, more and more activists joined the opposition movement across the country, calling for the resignation of “the President and his corrupt government.” Protesters and opposition figures have constantly blamed Russia for exerting strong influence and interfering with the internal politics of the Ukraine. Many analysis have stated that Russia fears loosing the Ukraine from its sphere of influence. Which is closely associated with Russia’s statues as a world power both in the view of Russians and the international community.

In light of recent media blackouts and in fear of total misperception of the Ukraine crisis by the international community, many members of the opposition party have hastily worked to get their message out to the world and mainstream media before it is too late to ask for assistance in enacting some sort of change in Ukraine.

Timeline of Events

21 November 2013: Protesters gather in Kiev’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, after receiving information that the government plans to suspend negotiations regarding the Association Agreement with the European Union. ‘Euromaidan‘ begins.

29 November 2013: After Ukraine refuses to sign the Association Agreement on November 29th, as was previously anticipated, the number of protesters in Kiev swells to 10,000. Many protesters call for the resignation of the government.

30 November 2013: Berkut, special police units, attack and disperse protesters by use of batons, stun grenades, and tear gas. Protesters are accused of reciprocal violence, throwing stones and burning logs. An estimated 79 people are injured in the riot.

8 December 2013: “March of a Million” rally takes place in Kiev, with more than 200,000 protesters coming out to support the opposition. All opposition parties claim the turnout met the 1,000,000 mark. After the rally, protesters topple the Lenin statue in Kiev without any interference from police. The statue is decapitated and later smashed into pieces with sledgehammers.


9 December 2013: Police raid the headquarters of the main opposition party, Batkivschyna. Their website goes offline soon after.

10 – 11 December 2013: Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union, meets with the government of Ukraine and several opposition figures to support a way out of the political crisis. While they discuss the release of Euromaidan detainees and the implementation of future EU reforms, members of the Euromaidan movement are not present at the meeting.

11 December 2013: Through use of bulldozers and chainsaws, Ukraine police attempt to remove barricades built by the opposition activists, but protesters rebuild barricades soon after police leave.

13 December 2013: Formal negotiations for peace begin between President Yanukovych and members of the opposition party. The two live TV streams of the discussion are disrupted when opposition leaders speak. Opposition party leaders claim that Dmytro Levin, who was invited under the guise that he is a part of the Euromaidan movement, is actually a pro-President party member. The real leaders of Euromaidan are not invited to the discussion.

17 December 2013: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine President Yanukovych sign the Ukrainian-Russian Action Plan, which reduces the price of natural gas sold from Russia to Ukraine and restores custom regulations on imports to Russia from Ukraine.

15 January 2014: Ukrainian courts ban protests and public assembly in Kiev.

16 January 2014: The Communist party of Ukraine pass anti-protest laws, which criminalize all Euromaidan opposition methods. Protesters call January 16 “Black Thursday,” and claim that “Ukraine Parliamentarianism is dead.”

19 January 2014: Protests erupt in Kiev over the “dictatorship laws.” In response to escalating violence, police are permitted to increase measures in stopping protests, which include blocking roads into the city and using water cannons on protesters despite freezing air temperatures.

21 – 22 January 2014: Three demonstrators are killed by Ukrainian police. The president presents several medals and honors to policemen and military officers for their service in the conflict.

22 January 2014: Opposition leaders present the president with a 24-hour window period to give into their demands before protesters will “go on the attack.”

23 January 2014: Police raid and destroy a Euromaidan medical center, and media blackouts to channels carrying Euromaidan coverage are reported all over the nation. The opposition movement claims police are now using improvised grenades by taping nails and other shrapnel to conventional stun grenades.

Anti-government protest in Kiev, 24/11/13

28 January 2014: The anti-protest, ‘dictatorship laws’ are abolished by Parliament. Prime Minister resigns and is replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov.

4 February 2014: United States Vice President Joe Biden calls President Yanukovych and urges him to accept international support to resolve the crisis. Biden calls for the release of detainees, the removal of riot police, and the prosecution of those attacking journalists and protesters.

18 February 2014: Mutual violence breaks out in Kiev as protesters advance on Ukraine’s parliament in support of rolling back the Constitution to its pre-2004 form. Police attempt to repel nearly 20,000 protesters with tear gas and flash grenades, while protesters respond by throwing molotov cocktails and other explosives into Kiev Square. At least 25 people are killed, and over one thousand injured. President Yanukovych leaves negotiations with opposition.

20 February 2014: Violence continues to escalate as both sides use firearms to protect themselves. Ukrainian special forces reportedly shoot at necks and heads, while also targeting ambulances and journalists. Members of government flee the country as more and more troops switch sides. Over 75 deaths are confirmed by nightfall.

21 February 2014: After increasing turmoil and violence, opposition leaders and President Yanukovych meet and sign an agreement aimed at resolving the months-old political crisis. The agreement moves the upcoming presidential elections from March 2015 to no later than December, but many protesters still say it is too far away. The agreement also limits presidential power, but says nothing about the abandoned EU negotiations.

What’s Happening NOW

As of Saturday morning, protesters took control of Kiev, seizing the president’s office without interference by police as they try to form a new government. A group of protesters protected by shields and helmets stood guard at the president’s office Saturday.

While the President left Kiev for a more supportive part of east Ukraine after signing the agreement, he addressed the public via TV broadcast Saturday afternoon, saying he had not resigned and had no plans to do so.

“I am a legitimately elected president,” he said. “What is happening today, mostly, it is vandalism, banditism, and a coup d’etat.”

Ukraine’s parliament, now controlled by anti-Yanukovych protesters, have impeached him and appointed an interim government. The acting interior minister has issued an arrest warrant for the former president. A tentitive date for new elections has been set for May 2014.

However, lawmakers in Kiev fear the possibility of Ukraine being split in two. While the western regions of Ukraine want to be closer to the EU, eastern Ukraine – which is comprised of most of Yanukovych’s supporters and accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output – favors plans to become closer with Russia.