Public records makeover
CommonWealth long has focused on the need for greater transparency in government. We’ve highlighted the needless secrecy surrounding the recipients of state tax credits and the shortcomings of the financial disclosure forms filed by government officials. We’ve even had some success in addressing those issues. The state plans to start identifying the recipients of certain tax credits next year. And we’ve tried to make financial disclosure forms more accessible to the public by spending thousands of our own dollars buying copies of the forms from the State Ethics Commission and posting them on our website.
But one area where we’ve had little success is the state’s Public Records Law. We published a cover story on the law in 2008 (“Public records not so public,” Fall ’08), highlighting the many stonewalling tactics used by public officials to avoid turning over documents. We’ve also published numerous articles on our website about rulings on appeals of records denials.
In this issue, Michael Morisy offers his own unique perspective. Morisy runs MuckRock, which files public records requests on behalf of the public. Users simply fill out a form detailing what information they want and MuckRock takes care of the rest. It writes the request, figures out who it should be sent to, and follows up if the information isn’t forthcoming.
“The opacity carries a very real cost,” writes Morisy. “In the past few years alone, Massachusetts has paid a terrible price for a lack of transparency in the form of patronage, kickbacks, payoffs, and the implosion of one of the Commonwealth’s largest investments in a private company, Evergreen Solar.”
While a revamped Public Records Law wouldn’t solve all of these problems, it could help. We rely on the Public Records Law a lot at CommonWealth. In this issue, contributing writer Colman Herman gathered much of the information for his Inquiry on the lucrative lease deals given to the Swan Boats in the Public Garden and Sullivan’s on Castle Island using the Public Records Law. He also spent more than six months trying to obtain records on other real estate deals from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Division of Capital Asset Management with minimal success.
For my story on the governor’s crackdown on compensation at the state’s authorities, I tried to find out how much MassDevelopment was paying its private attorneys to fight a $562,000 severance payment being sought by Ben Caswell, who was booted from his job at another authority when it was merged with MassDevelopment. MassDevelopment denied my request, arguing that the fee arrangement was protected by attorney-client privilege and exempt from the Public Records Law. I can understand why a lawyer’s legal advice to a client would be shielded, but I see no reason why the fees he is paid deserve the same protection. We’re appealing the authority’s decision.It seems obvious the Public Records Law needs a makeover. It should be expanded to cover the governor’s office, the judicial branch, and the Legislature. Exemptions from the law should be minimized and spelled out more clearly. Oversight of the law needs to be concentrated in one office instead of split between the secretary of state and the attorney general.
But most of all there needs to be a fundamental change in attitude about transparency in government. All too often the pursuit of information becomes a game of cat and mouse between government officials and reporters, with excesses on both sides. The games need to end. After all, what’s at stake is nothing less than the accountability of government to those they govern. Pretty important stuff, we think.