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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Northeastern j-students expose flaws in public records law

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Still from a video produced by Northeastern journalism students. Click on the Globe version of the story to view it.

Our journalism students at Northeastern made a big splash over the weekend. Professor Mike Beaudet’s investigative reporting class partnered with The Boston Globe and WCVB-TV (Channel 5) to produce a story showing that the majority of the state’s 351 cities and towns failed to respond to public records requests.

Here is the Globe version of the story, written by staff reporter Todd Wallack. Here is the WCVB version, helmed by Beaudet, who was recently hired as an investigative reporter at the station.

Despite an intense focus on the state’s extraordinarily weak public records law (here is a letter written earlier this year by the Northeastern School of Journalism faculty and published by the Globe, the Boston Herald, and GateHouse Media community newspapers), 2015 is drawing to a close with the Massachusetts House having passed an inadequate reform bill and the Senate not having acted at all.

Let’s hope that in early 2016 the Senate fixes what the House got wrong. And congratulations to our students on a great job.

Let’s keep the heat on for public-records reform

In case you missed it, Todd Wallack has a tremendous article in Sunday’s Boston Globe on our broken public-records system in Massachusetts.

Wallack begins with a killer anecdote: a $2.7 million price tag placed on Breathlyzer records a lawyer was seeking from the State Police. The lawyer, Thomas Workman of Taunton, says that other states charged him anywhere between nothing and $75.

“I was more disappointed than surprised,” Workman is quoted as saying. “I do work across the country, and I have more trouble trying to get information in Massachusetts than other places.” And oh, by the way: he never got the records he was seeking.

Right now is when you can make a difference, as I noted in a blog post reporting that the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) is trying to derail reform. Rather than sending my legislators emails, I posted on their public Facebook pages. State Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington, responded by telling me that he’s a co-sponsor of legislation that would significantly improve the law. I haven’t yet heard from state Sen. Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville, but will let you know if and when I do.

And this just in: Bob Ambrogi, a media lawyer who’s executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, sent out an email a few minutes ago warning that the MMA may have already succeeded, as a House session to vote on the reform legislation — now House 3665 — has been canceled. Let’s keep pushing. Ambrogi writes that “the bill may now be effectively killed.”

Not yet. Let’s keep pushing. Not sure who’s representing you on Beacon Hill? Just click here.

Arrest records and mug shots are not secret under state law

pyleBy Jeffrey J. Pyle

Thanks to The Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack, we learned last week that the supervisor of records, charged with enforcing the Massachusetts public records law, has permitted police departments withhold arrest reports and mug shots from the public in their “discretion.” Unsurprisingly, police departments have exercised that “discretion” to shield the identities of police officers arrested for drunken driving while publicizing the arrests of other Massachusetts residents for the same crime.

Yesterday, Secretary of State William Galvin took to Jim Braude’s “Greater Boston” show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) to defend the rulings. He pointed out that he had previously ruled that arrest reports to be public, but said he had to back down because another agency, the Department of Criminal Justice Information Systems (DCJIS), told him the records are secret under the “criminal offender record information” (CORI) statute. Former attorney general Martha Coakley shared that view, Galvin said, and the new attorney general, Maura Healey, has tentatively agreed.

But are they correct? Does the law allow the police officers to decide which arrest reports do and do not get released? The answer, thankfully, is no.

First some quick background. The public records law creates a presumption that all government records are public. Only if a specific, listed exemption applies can the government withhold documents, and those exemptions are supposed to be construed narrowly. Galvin relies on the exemption for records “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute,” here, the CORI law. The CORI law does impose certain limits on the disclosure of “criminal offender record information,” but it limits that term to information “recorded as the result of the initiation of criminal proceedings and any consequent proceedings related thereto.”

The word “initiation” is important. As late as 2010, Galvin’s office held the commonsense view that a “criminal proceeding” is initiated with the filing of a criminal complaint. Arrest reports and mug shots are generated before criminal complaints are filed, so they’re presumptively public. But in 2011, the DCJIS (which administers the state’s CORI database) told Galvin it believed “initiation of criminal proceedings” means “the point when a criminal investigation is sufficiently complete that the investigating officers take actions toward bringing a specific suspect to court.” That necessarily precedes arrest and booking, so all arrest reports and mug shots are covered by CORI. This “interpretation” is now contained in a DCJIS regulation. Another regulation says that police can release CORI information surrounding an investigation if they think it’s appropriate to do so.

In the common parlance, however, “criminal proceedings” occur in court, and they begin with the filing of a criminal charge. We don’t typically think of an arrest without charges as involving a “proceeding.” Galvin seems to agree — his office’s rulings have said only that DCJIS believes “initiation” occurs earlier — but he has thrown up his hands and deferred to this odd “interpretation” of the CORI statute.

The thing is, Galvin isn’t bound by what DCJIS says. The public records law says that the supervisor of records is entitled to determine “whether the record requested is public.” The DCJIS’s regulation adopting this view is irrelevant, too, because as noted above, the public records law only exempts documents “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute.” The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1999 that the “statutory” exemption doesn’t extend to mere regulatory enactments “promulgated under statutory authority,” even “in close cooperation with the Legislature.” Despite this ruling, just Wednesday, Galvin’s office again refused to order state police officer mug shots to Wallack on the ground that “[b]y regulation,” — not statute — they are exempt CORI documents.

Wallack’s reporting has led us to a momentous Sunshine Week in Massachusetts. We’ve seen unusual, coordinated editorials in major Massachusetts newspapers condemning the rulings, a letter published in the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media newspapers (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River) signed by members of the Northeastern Journalism School faculty, and extensive coverage on the normally neglected subject of government transparency.

To his credit, Galvin is calling for reforms to the public records law, and Attorney General Healey has vowed to work with his office to strengthen transparency. Reforms are sorely needed, especially to require shifting of attorneys’ fees if a requester successfully sues. But in the meantime, Galvin can and should reconsider his misguided rulings on arrest records.

Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner at the Boston law firm of Prince Lobel Tye and a trial lawyer specializing in First Amendment and media law.

Northeastern j-school faculty calls for public-records reform

The state’s weak public-records law has long needed to be reformed. A lack of meaningful penalties for government agencies that refuse to turn over public records, outrageous fees and other problems make Massachusetts a laggard when it comes to transparency. Several years ago the State Integrity Investigation awarded Massachusetts a richly deserved “F” on public access to information.

Last week brought mind-boggling news from Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe, who reported that Secretary of State William Galvin’s office has issued rulings allowing certain formerly public records to be suppressed, including arrest reports of police officers charged with drunken driving. (Galvin later turned around and called for an initiative petition to put some teeth in the public-records law. Make of that what you will.)

Now the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media Massachusetts have editorialized in favor of significant reform. The Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance, a group comprising the New England First Amendment Coalition, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and others, is calling for immediate action.

Seventeen of my colleagues and I at Northeastern’s School of Journalism lent our voices to the cause this week with a letter that has been published in the Globe, the Herald and (so far) two GateHouse papers: The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River. Because the Globe and the Herald were unable to run everyone’s names, I am posting them here. They include full-time as well as adjunct faculty:

  • Dan Kennedy, interim director
  • Chris Amico
  • Mike Beaudet
  • Nicholas Daniloff (emeritus)
  • Charles Fountain
  • Carlene Hempel
  • Joy Horowitz
  • Jeff Howe
  • William Kirtz
  • Dina Kraft
  • Jean McMillan Lang
  • Laurel Leff
  • Gladys McKie
  • Lincoln McKie
  • Bill Mitchell
  • Tinker Ready
  • James Ross
  • Alan Schroeder

This is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government. In Massachusetts it’s time to let the sun shine in.