CommonWealth report shows that the state’s new public records law isn’t working

Following up on my WGBH News column about the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law, I want to call your attention to this excellent article (which predated mine) in CommonWealth Magazine by Colman Herman.

Herman took a look at the (slightly) improved public records law more than three years after it took effect — and what he found demonstrates the need to go back and reform the law root and branch. Among the lowlights:

  • Provisions aimed at toughening the penalties for compliance have been ineffective. Among the most egregious offenders are the State Police and the Boston Police, which, he writes, “take extraordinary measures to withhold documents in their entirety from public view.”
  • A provision that was supposed to make it easier for members of the press and the public to access public records without having to pay high fees has fallen short of that goal. Herman reports that when he asked for copies of disciplinary actions taken against massage therapists over a five-year period, “officials demanded $2,000 before it would turn over any records.”
  • Agencies regularly cite the multiple exemptions built into the law in order to deny access to such obviously public documents as MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak’s contract — which was turned over, Herman writes, but only after a considerable delay.
  • Turning enforcement over to Attorney General Maura Healey has had mixed results, with the attorney general’s office in some cases failing to uphold orders issued by the secretary of state’s office.

“The adages are many — information is the currency of democracy, sunlight is the best disinfectant, democracy depends on an informed citizenry,” Herman writes. “But in Massachusetts, these beliefs often still get shunted aside when it comes to accessing public records even under the new Public Records Law.”

Herman’s article is further evidence that open government in Massachusetts is more myth than reality.

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