Public Records Law changes likely

Kocot wants commission to explore making lawmakers subject to the law

The Massachusetts House seems poised to make some changes to the state’s Public Records Law, and will even explore bringing Beacon Hill lawmakers under the law’s purview.

A bill drafted by Rep. Peter Kocut of Northampton would require state agencies to make more of their records available to the public and make it easier for the public to obtain access to other records. The bill would also establish a special commission to explore whether the Legislature should be subject to both the Public Records law and the Open Meeting Law.

The bill is currently sitting in the Legislature’s Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, but Kocot, who cochairs the committee, said the bill will be reported out this spring. He said the bill has the support of House Speaker Robert DeLeo. “I am optimistic that it will likely be acted on this session,” he said.

Most of the bill’s provisions would make it easier to obtain public records. For example, the bill requires every state agency to designate one or more employees to deal with public records requests. It also requires agencies to post on their websites copies of many public records, including opinions, decisions, and winning bids on state contracts. The bill limits how much can be charged for producing public records, grants reasonable attorney’s fees to plaintiffs who prevail in litigation over public records, and eliminates some of the excuses agencies have used in the past to avoid complying with records requests.

The bill also would establish a commission made up primarily of state lawmakers that would be charged with making more information about the activities of the Legislature available to the public. The commission would also explore “the practicability of applying the provisions of the Public Records and Open Meetings Laws to the General Court either by statute or by rule.” The commission would convene its first meeting 45 days after passage of the legislation and issue its report by October 1, 2014.

Regarding the special commission, Kocot said the goal is greater transparency. “We’re trying to be sensitive to the jobs that legislators do with regard to their interactions with constituents,” he said. “We need to figure out how we maintain confidentiality in terms of the personal records they share with us.”

Kocot, who would cochair the special commission if the bill becomes law, said he also believes legislative records dealing with private caucus deliberations should be shielded from public view to avoid a “chilling effect” on the deliberations.

Walter Robinson, a former investigative reporter at the Boston Globe who is now a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said state lawmakers shouldn’t need a special commission to tell them their actions should be subject to public scrutiny. “It has been 233 years since the ratification of the Massachusetts Constitution and its Declaration of Rights, which established the principle of open government and freedom of the press,” Robinson said.

Meet the Author
In addition to the Legislature, the governor’s office and the judiciary are both exempt from the Public Records Law. A bill languishing for close to a year in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee would make the administrative units of the judicial branch, including the probation department and the office of the chief justice of administration, subject to the law.

Another bill languishing in committee on Beacon Hill would give Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees the Public Records Law, the power to issue orders requiring compliance with the law. If an order is ignored, the bill would also give him the power to go to court to require compliance. Currently, Attorney General Martha Coakley is charged with enforcing the Public Records Law in court, but she and Galvin rarely see eye to eye on enforcement.