Beacon Hill pols prefer less scrutiny of Beacon Hill pols
Public records commission quietly disbands
IF, AS THE Washington Post now proclaims on its masthead, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” the already low-level lighting on Beacon Hill was just dimmed to a 5-watt flicker.
When lawmakers passed reforms in 2016 to the state’s public records law, they left in place an exemption covering the Legislature, the governor’s office, and the judiciary. Instead, legislators opted to form a commission to study making those entities subject to the law, which covers most municipal government offices as well as executive branch departments of state government.
If cynics thought that might be a bit like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, their skepticism hardly seems to have been misplaced.
After two years, that special commission missed its final deadline for filing a report with recommendations and has been disbanded, reports the Globe’s Todd Wallack. The Senate members of the commission filed a separate report offering some recommendations for greater transparency regarding committee votes and hearings.
In a case of unenviable exceptionalism, Massachusetts is the only state where all three branches of state government are entirely exempt from public records laws.
Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, called the commission’s inaction “an epic failure that weakens our democracy.”
The issue is complicated by the fact that the state Constitution might preclude legislative moves to open up the governor’s office and judiciary to the public records law. “We are the only state in the union that broaches the subject in our Constitution,” Benson told the Globe. “We cannot change the Constitution with legislation.”
Lawmakers are entirely free, however, to pass legislation making their own work subject to the public records law, just as municipal legislative bodies are. But there appears to be little appetite for such a move in a place whose wheels have long been greased by backroom deal-making far from public view.There are all sorts of occasions in which Massachusetts has stood apart from the other 49 states. Legalization of same-sex marriage and the state’s 2006 health care law are two recent examples. In such cases, the question to always ask is whether we’re a leading light, blazing a trail that others will ultimately follow, or whether we’re clinging to a hidebound way of doing business at odds with open governance and the principles of democracy we claim to have helped plant.
Sometimes, to ask a question is to answer it.