COMMON CAUSE MASSACHUSETTS is committed to fighting for a more transparent and open government. That’s why we’re celebrating Sunshine Week, which just concluded, by shining a light on ways Massachusetts could strengthen our Public Records Law and Open Meeting Law.
Massachusetts is known for our many history-making firsts. The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first acts of the American Revolution in 1775; Lowell High School was the first desegregated public high school in the country in 1843; the first basketball game was played in Springfield in 1891.
Unfortunately, not all of our firsts are worthy of celebration. We’re also the first and only state to exempt all three of our branches of government from public records requests. Our courts, Legislature, and governor’s office are all exempt from public records laws.
In most other states, you can submit public records requests to public offices for documents like calendars, emails and texts, visitor logs, and call logs. These requestable records can reveal a heap of important information about our leaders: who they are meeting with, what issues they are prioritizing, and how they are spending taxpayer dollars. But as it stands here in Massachusetts, the public is not entitled to that information from lawmakers, judges, or even the governor’s office.
Massachusetts is one of only two states where the governor’s office claims such a blanket exemption. This practice began in 1997 due to a narrow Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling. In the decades following that ruling, every governor’s office has claimed the exemption.
Fortunately, we have an opportunity to fix this by including the governor’s office in our public records laws. Senate bill S.1967, filed by Sen. Michael Brady, would make reasonable clarifications to the existing law to limit the governor’s office from opting out of all public records requests.
The Open Meeting Law is another important provision in state law that ensures a level of accessibility and transparency in government. Due to the pandemic, there was a temporary expansion to our Open Meeting Law which allowed for the public to observe and participate in municipal government and state boards virtually. This an important step to take during the pandemic, but beyond that, it removed long-standing barriers to participation and even increased participation.
Another step that we could take to strengthen government transparency and public access would be to make these expansions permanent. Bills H.3040 filed by Rep. Denise Garlick and S.2024 filed by Sen. Jason Lewis, titled An Act Modernizing Public Meetings, would do just that by requiring municipalities to adopt the gold-standard model: a hybrid option to observe and participate either in person or virtually.
Government officials work on our behalf and in our name. It’s in the public’s best interest to end the governor’s blanket exemption from the public records law and to ensure that hybrid open meetings are here to stay.
Perhaps Massachusetts can be the first to ensure more open government and political transparency at a time when many other states are installing new barriers to participation and information. That would be another first worth celebrating.
Geoff Foster is executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.