THE HOUSE ON Wednesday unanimously approved a watered-down Public Records reform bill but beat back an attempt to lift the exemption covering the Legislature, instead agreeing to form a commission to study whether lawmakers, the governor, and the courts should be subject to the law.
The measure — which allows requesters to seek attorney fees if they are thwarted from getting public records but now allows the state as long as 60 days to comply and cities and towns as long as 75 days — does nothing to change the scope of what is widely viewed as one of the nation’s weakest public records laws. But some advocates say any vote to update the 43-year-old law is a step in the right direction.
“This is the beginning of a process, not the end,” said Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts. “You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You rarely get everything you want; that’s not how it works.”
Rep. Bradford Hill, the assistant minority leader, offered the amendment to form the commission to evaluate the exemptions of the three branches, which passed unanimously. The law currently explicitly exempts the Legislature from the statute and court decisions have ruled the executive office and the judiciary are not covered either. But Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Republican from Taunton, said anything short of subjecting lawmakers to public records access is the “height of hypocrisy.”
“There will be no true reform until we hold the Legislature to the same standards we are trying to hold everyone else to,” she said.
State Rep. Peter Kocot, who authored the House version of the initial bill, said the measure brings the Public Records law into synch with the federal Freedom of Information Act and other states’ statutes that allow recovery of attorneys’ fees as well as placing a “hard stop” date on compliance, even if it is two months or more.
“The law never had a hard stop before,” the Northampton Democrat said. “Entities saw the 10-day time-frame as a reply. It wasn’t a comply. This sets a reasonable amount of time with a drop dead date. Prior to this, the response would be six months, nine months, a year, never. This sets a hard stop.”
Kocot also said forming a commission would allow lawmakers to study the best practices of other states to see what they allow for public access to records versus privacy rights of constituents who communicate with legislators.
“This is an extremely complex issue,” Kocot said. “It raises the conflict between access vs. privacy. I routinely get requests for health care help from constituents who send me their health information, from families dealing with [the Department of Children and Families], from spouses in bad situations, from people looking for work. How we deal with each of those issue areas is very complicated. They think they’re communicating with their representative and don’t necessarily expect their information to show up on a blog or in the newspaper.”
The bill now heads to the Senate but, with Wednesday the last day for formal sessions until after the holidays, will not be taken up until January.
“We will not have time to allow Senators to review the Public Records bill, file amendments, and debate,” on Wednesday, Peter Wilson, the spokesman for Senate President Stan Rosenberg, wrote in an email. “We will address the legislation when we return to formal sessions in January.”
If the Senate does make changes, the bill would have to be dealt with by a conference committee before it reaches the governor’s desk. Wilmot said advocates will work with the Senate to try to make changes to beef up the bill, such as the extended time for compliance.
Lurking in the wings is a potential ballot question by Secretary of State William Galvin to reform the public records law. A spokesman for Galvin said the secretary would continue the process of filing signatures and moving forward but said he supports the bill that emerged from the House and could drop his effort, depending on the Senate actions.
“He would prefer the Legislature to act,” said Brian McNiff. “If it does not act, he will go forward with the proposal…He’s fine with the [House] bill as it is now.”