Galvin bill would subject governor’s office to public records law

Gubernatorial candidates polled on their stances

SECRETARY OF STATE William Galvin has filed legislation that would subject the governor’s office to the Massachusetts public records law, a law that Galvin’s office helps enforce.

“I am proposing this change to our public records law to bring the governor’s office in line with other state agencies and local offices, whose records are accessible to members of the public,” Galvin said in a statement.  “With a new governor taking office in the next year, this seems like an appropriate time to update our public records laws with respect to that office.”

The public records law lays out how and when state and local public agencies must release records to the public. The law applies to all aspects of state and local government except the Legislature. Court rulings have interpreted the law in a way that exempts the governor’s office and the judiciary.

Gov. Charlie Baker, during his time in office, has voluntarily released records in response to some public records requests and withheld them in others. When he chooses not to release records, he cites the court case Lambert v. the Judicial Nominating Council.

If Galvin’s legislation doesn’t pass, it will still be up to the next governor to decide whether to invoke Lambert as a means of shielding records from public scrutiny.

CommonWealth asked the current crop of gubernatorial candidates for governor if they would take a pledge not to invoke the Lambert decision as a basis for withholding records if they are elected to the corner office.

A campaign spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey said Healey “believes the governor’s office, just like other executive offices in the state, should be subject to the public records law, and would voluntarily comply if elected,” she said.

Healey, who is currently charged with enforcing the public records law, previously ruled that the governor’s office is not subject to the law because of the Lambert decision.

Justin Silverman. the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, believes that Healey’s reply does not fully respond to the question.

“Healey’s response is ambiguous at best,” Silverman said. “It . . . does nothing to rebuke the use of Lambert to maintain secrecy within the governor’s office. There’s no reassurance here that, if she’s elected governor, Healey won’t cite the Lambert decision just as previous administrations have done.”

The campaign of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain also sidestepped the question of whether the candidate would take the pledge not to employ Lambert for withholding records. Instead, a campaign official said Chang-Diaz is “committed to transparency and her past work is one of the best indicators of how she’ll operate as governor.”

Democratic candidate and Harvard professor Danielle Allen pledged not to invoke Lambert if she is elected. “Yes, I am happy to take this pledge,” she said. “An Allen administration . . . will lead by example on transparency and accountability.”

Republican candidates Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty did not respond to multiple inquiries seeking a response to the pledge question. 

When an updated version of the public records law was approved in 2017, the Legislature put off making the governor’s office subject to the public records law and instead established a special commission to study the matter.

The commission, which met five times in 2018 with spotty attendance by a number of its members, failed to reach a consensus and never issued a report.

Galvin, who has held his job since 1995, recently announced he is running for reelection. He is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan. He first revealed his public records legislation to the Boston Globe.