Public-records reform: Start with weak tea; add water

Judging from the tone of coverage, it’s hard to tell whether the Massachusetts House’s unanimous approval of public-records reform legislation Wednesday was a step forward or a setback. But it sounds like the already-watery bill under consideration has been diluted still further.

Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and a staunch advocate of reform, is everywhere, telling Andy Metzger of the State House News Service that the bill is “a mixed bag”; lamenting in an article by Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, “My concern is that the bill had just introduced an awful lot of ambiguities”; and describing the legislation as “one step forward and one step back” in an article by Shira Schoenberg of MassLive.com.

The problem is that even though Massachusetts’ public-records law is among the worst in the country (the Center for Public Integrity recently gave the state an “F” for public access to information), the bill passed by the House both giveth and taketh away. Here’s Wallack:

The legislation includes a measure designed to reduce the fees for copies. It orders government agencies to publicly designate someone to handle public records requests, and it gives citizens the opportunity to potentially recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records….

But the bill also gives agencies significantly more time to respond to requests, allows them to outsource some requests to vendors, and did not go as far as some advocates had hoped to rein in labor charges and penalize officials who flout the law.

The bill also continues to exempt the governor’s office, the judiciary and the Legislature itself from the provisions of the law. A commission is going to study that — although, needless to say, it would be a major surprise if we ever heard about it again.

The only hope now is that the Senate will strengthen the legislation when it comes up for consideration early next year. The danger is that Gov. Charlie Baker will sign a weak bill into law, officials will pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and meaningful reform will be put off for another generation.