By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Trust in government requires public access

During the weekend, more than 20 of the state’s daily newspapers, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, the New England First Amendment Coalition at Northeastern University, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and New England Newspaper & Press Association, published this editorial endorsing legislation to increase government transparency. A list of those newspapers can be found here. Media Nation is proud to lend its support.

The walls Beacon Hill has erected between itself and those it governs have taken on two dramatically different faces.

Outside, they show decades’ of wear at the hands of those fighting for better access to their government. Inside, they’re increasingly pocked with a taint that thrives in the absence of light.

That taint, most recently seen in a disturbing chain of high-profile corruption cases, suggests any benefits such barriers provide to the efficiency of lawmaking are grievously undermined by the efficiencies they also provide to those more interested in lawbreaking.

The felony convictions of three successive House speakers – and a Probation Department scandal that threatens to reach into every corner of public service – clearly indicate state transparency laws are in dire need of improvement.

Central to that effort is eliminating exemptions that free the governor’s office, Legislature and judiciary from having to live by the meeting and records laws that apply to every other public office in this state. Just as important is making it easier and more affordable for people to take advantage of the access already protected by a law that predates e-mail and the Internet.

It’s an area where minor advances have been made but substantive reform has been routinely killed or ignored.

Given recent scandals and polls showing a deep and growing distrust in government, we hope this year is different.

That notion will soon be tested on several fronts as lawmakers consider a number of initiatives.

One bill seeks to reduce the cost of obtaining records, requiring state agencies to make commonly sought public documents available electronically. It would also cut administrative costs and processing time associated with such records requests.

Another would strengthen the enforcement and investigatory powers of the Supervisor of Public Records.

A third would assess penalties against lawmakers who purposely skirt access laws and would cover the legal fees of those who successfully challenge them. And several seek to breach that battered and stained wall around Beacon Hill, subjecting the Legislature to the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Critics of the measures have focused on the financial and manpower burdens they impose on records keepers. Yet this push for more easily accessible records, already successfully implemented in other states, holds the promise of reducing those burdens.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, following the June conviction of his predecessor, Salvatore DiMasi, vowed to regain voters’ faith in state government.

“Today’s news delivers a powerful blow to the public’s trust in government,” he wrote then. “One of the things that I find most disturbing – and the thing I am most committed to changing – is the public’s view of politicians and public sector employees.”

Fewer walls – legal, financial and technological – would go a long way toward that goal.

Photo (cc) by Andy Connolly via Wikimedia Commons.

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4 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Cox

    When it has to get done….keep it in the back room! Example: Casino debate.

  2. You know the Herald just got spanked, right?

    http://christopher-king.blogspot.com/2011/09/kingcast-laughs-his-tuchis-off-at-rosh.html

    Lost on Summary Judgment. I’ll have some 1080p cameras ready for trial.

  3. LFNeilson

    Democracy requires faith in government, which requires transparency. Corruption continues because the perps know they can (a) make lots of $ (b) hide what they do and (c) get away with it. The decreased power of the media has allowed the problem to fester. Corruption may not draw much media attention until the AG files charges, but it is far more insidious than street crime.

  4. Peter Sullivan

    I always find it interesting to see the level of comments that Media Nation generates on particular posts. Anything that offers a left vs. right subject matter gets comment after comment damming conservatives, damming liberals, etc… but a very well written piece on what I consider to be a critical issue facing journalists, public access to government information gets barely any, one guy plugging his own blog site and a couple of short clips about the topic.

    A single sentence and a picture from the top of Mt. Washington seems more thought provoking than a very long piece on public records access to the media???

    Two knee jerk thoughts come to mind. The first, this is what is wrong with the media, too much agenda driven nonsense about your favorite team… The second is the Media Nation real name policy. If the people that care about this issue were able to express opinions and give examples of government blocking public access without fear of losing a key source, or annoying someone they need to do their job, I think a more lively discussion would take place on things that are important to Journalists. Readers of Media Nation are smart enough to wade thru the nonsense and ferret out interesting information about the industry, but I think this policy limits the discussion drastically.

    Just my two cents.

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