By Chris Camire
BOSTON — Public-records laws were created to lift the veil of secrecy on government.
But in Massachusetts, these laws have largely gone untouched for more than three decades. By 21st century standards, the cost to obtain records is often expensive and the responses untimely.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, is looking to change that by bringing the state’s public-records system into the digital age.
Eldridge, along with state Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, has filed several pieces of legislation that would make public records more accessible. The Massachusetts Public Records Law has not been updated since 1973, making it increasingly difficult for the public to obtain public records, according to Eldridge.
“Part of what makes a democracy healthy is a true freedom of the press,” said Eldridge. “I think this is something that is particularly important to the media and the press. They are the ones doing the digging. They are the ones trying to get access to records.”
Eldridge’s and Cabral’s legislation would limit public-records access fees to actual production costs; limit fees for finding and reviewing records; and eliminate fees for simple electronic records. It would also reduce copying fees.
An ordinary black-and-white copy should never cost $1 per page, Eldridge argues.
“The main thrust of the bill is saying agencies can’t charge fees that are not related to the actual costs of producing the documents, and it eliminate fees entirely for electronic documents,” he said.
The legislation would also make it routine for public records to be provided in electronic form, and for information of significant interest to the public to be posted online. It also ensures that electronic record-keeping systems are designed so public information can be easily extracted, segregated from exempt information, and provided in usable formats.
Under the legislation, extracting public records from a database would become part of the process of providing access. It would not constitute the creation of a new record, which allows government agencies to charge additional fees.
News organizations and members of the public often run into high costs and long waits when trying to access public information.
The Sun, for example, in February 2010, sought a list of e-mails sent between members of the Billerica School Committee and school administrators. Superintendent of Schools Anthony Serio, said the cost to obtain the records would exceed $1,300.
Serio explained that the school’s technology manager, Mark Bishop, was the only employee within the school district with the ability to access the e-mails. Gathering the e-mails would take Bishop 42.7 hours, said Serio, at a cost of $31.07 per hour.
There would also be a printing cost of 50 cents per page, said Serio.
Cities and towns would be exempt from certain provisions in the legislation, such as the requirement to publish records of significant interest. Eldridge said he is trying to find a balance between ensuring public access to records and not overburdening municipalities already stretched thin by budgetary constraints.
Limiting excessive fees and making records available electronically would apply to cities and towns, however.
Eldridge and Cabral have also filed a bill that makes public records within administrative offices of the courts, including Probation and the Office of the Chief Justice for Administration and Management, subject to freedom-of-information requests. Probation, as part of the judicial branch of government, views itself as exempt from the Public Records Law.
Under this proposal, information about hiring procedures and policy decisions would be made public. The bill does not apply the public-records law to confidential criminal-justice records or other court records, Eldridge said.
The legislation would also require the state to reimburse attorneys’ fees to anyone found to have been denied access to public records without valid reasons. Eldridge thinks this provision will discourage government agencies from denying public-records requests.
Eldridge believes there is “growing support” within the Legislature to pass his reforms.
He noted that public-records systems have changed dramatically since 1973, with more records, in a wide array of forms, including e-mail archives and electronic databases. Eldridge said his legislation will renew the state’s commitment to providing public access to records while embracing new technology.
“Any member of the public should be able to gain access to information to understand what government is doing,” he said.