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.”