Open government in Mass. moves to closer to reality

The following is a press release from the ACLU of Massachusetts.

BOSTON—In a pair of unanimous, bipartisan votes, the state House of Representatives and Senate today passed the first major reform of Massachusetts public records law in four decades, sending it to Governor Charlie Baker, who has 10 days to sign, veto, or let it become law without his signature. If signed into law by Governor Baker, the legislation would address widely criticized weaknesses in Massachusetts public records law, which make it hard for citizens to get information about how their government functions.

“This is a great day for open government,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We thank the House and the Senate for making public records reform a priority and for getting the job done. We also call on Governor Baker to do the right thing and sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.”

The bill would:

  • Set clear limits on how much money government agencies can charge for public records;
  • Set reasonable time frames for responses to public records requests;
  • Allow municipalities to request additional time for compliance and the ability to charge higher fees to cover reasonable costs;
  • Strengthen enforcement of the law by giving courts the ability to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public records.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance—a coalition of open-government groups—praised the House and its leadership for making transparency a significant legislative priority. The coalition urged Governor Charlie Baker to sign the legislation without delay and usher in a new era of openness in Massachusetts state government.

“A strong public records law is critical to democracy and our ability as citizens to hold government accountable,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “With today’s vote, the House and the Senate made a significant commitment to transparency and freedom of information, improving open government, and moving our state a huge step forward from near last in the nation. This reform is long overdue and we hope the Governor will sign it without delay.”

In November, the Center for Public Integrity released a report that gave the Commonwealth an “F” grade on public access to government information for the second time in a row. Dozens of organizations have advocated for comprehensive public records law reform, arguing that the law is among the weakest in the country and needs updating for the digital age. State lawmakers made their last substantive amendment to the law in 1973.

“This bill represents a significant step forward for transparency in Massachusetts,” said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “It will do a lot to improve access to public records. We hope and expect Governor Baker will prove himself to be a transparency-minded Governor by signing it into law.”

“Massachusetts residents deserve a stronger public records law, and this bill offers many improvements. We look forward to the governor signing it into law and providing more opportunity to hold government officials accountable,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

The pending legislation advanced earlier in the week when a conference committee of six legislators reconciled earlier versions passed by the House and Senate. The bill passed by the House and Senate today includes provisions designed to reduce the cost of obtaining public records and ensure timely responses to information requests. In addition, by allowing courts to award attorney fees to those wrongly denied access to public information, the bill would bring Massachusetts into line with 47 other states. The new law would not make such fee awards mandatory, but would establish a presumption in favor of covering requesters’ legal costs when courts find the law has been violated. The bill also includes safety-valve mechanisms to enable municipalities to get extensions on compliance deadlines and to receive reasonable compensation when dealing with particularly complex, time-consuming requests.

The full bill, An Act to improve public records (now H.4333), can be found here: https://malegislature.gov/Document/Bill/189/House/H4333.pdf.

Guest commentary: Reform public-records law now

The following statement was released Monday by the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance.

The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a network of more than 40 groups committed to reforming the state public records law, today commended Gov. Charlie Baker for issuing guidance to improve state executive agencies’ handling of requests for information, but emphasized that significant changes to the law itself are still needed to achieve broad, enforceable access to public information throughout the Commonwealth.

Responding to widespread criticism that the Massachusetts public records law is among the weakest in the country and routinely flouted by public officials, Baker last Thursday issued a memorandum to cabinet secretaries providing guidance on how to “reduce delays and costs that burden accessibility.” The memo directs agencies to designate a records access officer to help streamline requests, to standardize fees for copying and staff time, and to set expectations for agency response time. The guidance applies only to state executive agencies, not municipalities, independent agencies, or other entities subject to the public records law.

MassFOIA commended the governor’s action but simultaneously called for legislative reform.

“We applaud Gov. Baker for providing leadership and direction to improve access to public information,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “But even the best-intended administrative guidance is inherently limited. It doesn’t have the force of law and it won’t have any impact on access at the municipal level.”

“The governor deserves credit for taking this step,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the ACLU of Massachusetts, “but we also need legislation to fix the law itself and ensure real accountability. Otherwise, Massachusetts will keep getting failing grades and officials will continue to treat freedom of information as a suggestion instead of a public right.”

Several of the provisions outlined in Baker’s memo may increase timely and affordable access, but they set no firm deadlines for complying with requests or overall limits on the amount of money that agencies can charge to provide information the public has a right to obtain.

“Even under this guidance, agencies can — and in all probability will — continue to charge a fortune for requests that they perceive as complex,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Time and again we’ve seen Massachusetts agencies demand huge fees when other states turn over the same information for a fraction of the cost. While this guidance is a step in the right direction, it won’t prevent abuses of the law.”

“One of the most important reforms is attorney’s fees for those wrongly denied public records, and that cannot be established by the governor,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “That takes legislation. We’re pushing for a vote on a strong comprehensive bill in the legislature in September.” Forty-seven other states provide attorney’s fees to hold officials accountable when they refuse to follow the law.

The state public records law grants the public the right to access information about government operations from the executive branch and municipalities, subject to certain exemptions. MassFOIA contends that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.

In July, the legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight gave the nod to a bill supported by MassFOIA, which is now before the House Committee on Ways and Means. Key provisions would update the law to reflect advances in technology, rationalize fees for obtaining public records by having them reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information. It would also help government officials fielding public records requests by allowing them additional time for compliance and the ability to ask for other accommodations in “exceptional circumstances.” Legislative leaders have indicated a desire to vote on public records reform legislation in the fall.

The proposed legislation aims to improve access to information the law already defines as a public record. It would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions, including those for personal privacy, criminal investigations, personnel records and trade secrets. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Promote access to records in electronic form.
  • Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
  • Lower costs for requesters and limit charges for redacting documents to withhold information.
  • Require attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied, creating an incentive for agencies to obey the law.
  • Extend the time for compliance from 10 to 15 days.
  • Allow record-keepers to obtain more time or the ability to charge special fees when responding to frequent or unusually large requests.

 

Cities and towns seek to derail public-records reform

A serious attempt to reform the state’s broken public-records law — the shortcomings of which I described recently in the WGBH News Muzzle Awards — is on the verge of being derailed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), according to advocates.

On Friday came word that the state Legislature was likely to pass the long-awaited reform bill, House 2772, according to The Boston Globe and State House News Service. The bill, though not perfect, includes key provisions to hit noncompliant government agencies with lawyers’ fees and to limit how much those agencies can charge for complying with public-records requests.

Now comes word that the municipal association, a lobbying group for the state’s cities and towns, is working to prevent final passage. Here is a statement sent out by the MMA in which the bill is denounced as an “unfunded mandate” that could be used to “harass” local officials.

The following is an email sent to me by Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

Hi Folks,

It is do or die time for MassFOIA, because our public records bill, which was on the move, is now under aggressive attack.

As of yesterday, the plan was for a House vote on our public records bill next Weds, with a Senate vote the following week. Now, the MMA is fighting back with everything they have [a reference to the document linked above] and we need to do the same or the bill may be dead.  In fact, it appears the House has cancelled their formal session for next week so our reform efforts are in mortal danger. If they kill the bill now, it will be all the more difficult to revive.

So, please:

1) Write to your members to get them to call or email their legislators. I’ve attached an email that Pam wrote to Common Cause members this morning. [Note: I have not included the attachment.]

2) Stay tuned as we develop materials over the weekend and early next week that you may need to sign onto — such as a coalition letter. We will need a quick turn around.

3) Keep your eyes open for updated talking points over the weekend.

Thanks for your support of this critical issue!

Best,

Gavi Wolfe, ACLU of Massachusetts
Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts
Bob Ambrogi, MA Newspaper Publishers Association
Justin Silverman, New England First Amendment Coalition

Another side to a judge’s free legal assistance

I don’t want to defend a possible conflict of interest on the part of a judge. But I do want to offer a different perspective on today’s lead story in The Boston Globe, in which we learn that a judge accused of misconduct received $550,000 in free legal assistance.

The Globe’s Andrea Estes reports that Boston Municipal Court Judge Raymond Dougan received the free legal help in order to fight charges brought by Suffolk County District Attorney (and current mayoral candidate) Dan Conley that Dougan was biased in favor of defendants and against prosecutors. The Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct dismissed Conley’s complaint in late 2012.

In today’s story, Estes writes:

For more than two decades, the Judicial Conduct Commission had required judges to pay for their own legal representation during misconduct investigations. Free legal services could violate the state’s conflict-of-interest law and the code of conduct for judges, both of which prohibit giving gifts to public officials.

But consider. When Conley filed his complaint, he was in a no-lose situation. Even if Dougan ultimately prevailed, Conley knew that the judge would be ruined financially, and be held up as an object lesson for other judges wary of incurring the wrath of prosecutors. That’s outrageous, and tilts the balance in favor of the prosecution even more than it already is.

Dougan found a way around that. And keep in mind that Conley’s complaint was ultimately found to be bogus.

Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, tells the Globe, “This is a very large sum of money, and only ­increases the need for a second look at the issue of legal representation of judges.”

Yes. And one way to do that is for the state to pay for legal services when judges  face allegations that don’t involve corruption or personal wrongdoing.