Let the sun shine in: It’s time to end the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law

Photo via Good Free Photos.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s long past time to close a gaping loophole in the Massachusetts public records law: an exemption that allows the Legislature to conduct much of its business in secret. State agencies as well as cities and towns are required to turn over all manner of documents when members of the press and the public ask them to do so. Our elected lawmakers, though, operate under the cover of darkness.

With legislative business wrapping up during the next few weeks, it’s too late to expect anything to happen this year. But Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said he expects bills aimed at rolling back at least part of the exemption to be filed next January. Unfortunately, he also expects those bills to die the same quick death that similar proposals have in previous years.

“The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” Ambrogi said in an email. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, added he was “fairly certain there is no appetite” on Beacon Hill for any serious effort at reform.

Spokespersons for the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, declined to comment.

What prompted this column was a tweet. Two weeks ago, WGBH News published the annual New England Muzzle Awards, which spotlight outrages against the First Amendment from across the region. Anthony Amore, a security expert who was the 2018 Republican candidate for secretary of state, posted on Twitter: “Somehow the Massachusetts Legislature and Robert DeLeo escaped notice despite the most glaring muzzle of them all, exempting themselves from public records requests.”

 

Sadly, the exemption Amore was complaining about is hardly a shocker given the sorry state of open government in Massachusetts. According to a 2018 survey by the nonprofit investigative news project MuckRock, Massachusetts is just one of four states that do not subject their legislatures to public records laws. The others: Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

“In our state’s constitution, it says that the Legislature should be ‘at all times accountable to’ the people,” Mary Connaughton of the Pioneer Institute told MuckRock. “How can they be accountable if they are hiding behind closed doors or shielding their records from the people?”

MuckRock also pointed out that the four outliers are merely following the lead of Congress, which is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act. But that’s hardly an excuse. Let’s not forget that, in 2015, the Center for Public Integrity awarded Massachusetts an “F” for its miserable record of failing to provide public access to information.

The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker did approve an upgrade to the public records law in 2016. But though some progress was made in terms of fees and enforcement provisions, the loopholes remain. Indeed, not only is the Legislature exempt, but so is the judiciary. And a string of governors, including Baker, have claimed that they and their immediate staff also need not comply.

As Boston Globe investigative reporter Todd Wallack noted on Twitter earlier this week: “Massachusetts remains the only state where the courts, Legislature, and governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt from public records laws.”

 

Ambrogi said that, during negotiations over the 2016 bill, it was made clear to reform advocates that their efforts would be derailed if they targeted the legislative and gubernatorial exemptions. The bill did create a special legislators-only commission to study further changes — but that effort, according to Ambrogi, has barely gotten off the ground.

In testimony before the commission nearly two years ago, Ambrogi said, a coalition of advocates called for removing the exemption for the governor and for modifying the exemptions for the Legislature and the courts. He emphasized that the advocates have not asked that the legislative exemption be repealed in its entirety. Rather, he said, “we proposed subjecting certain legislative records to the public records law, such as financial reports, bills and resolutions, journals, certain internal memoranda, internal manuals and policies, meeting minutes, and more.”

In a recent point-counterpoint feature in The Boston Globe, Lawrence Friedman, a professor at the New England School of Law, defended the legislative exemption. “It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Yet 46 state legislatures somehow manage to conduct business without such secrecy provisions. As Friedman’s sparring partner, Justin Silverman, argued, “These types of records are used by community watchdogs, journalists, and concerned citizens throughout the country to keep their legislators accountable.” Silverman added that with the COVID-19 pandemic reducing access to government officials, being able to obtain records is more important than ever.

If state agencies, city councils, school committees and select boards can comply with the law, then so, too, can our legislators — and our governor and our court system as well. The law already contains a number of common-sense exceptions for such matters as protecting the secrecy of contract negotiations and, when warranted, the privacy of government employees.

There are a number of clichés you could invoke here — sunshine is the best disinfectant, the government works for us, the public’s business should be conducted in public, and the like. The bottom line, though, is that democratic self-government is impossible if our elected officials are shielded from having to tell us what they are saying and doing on our behalf.

The moment has come to bring this outrage to an end.

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