September 26, 2011
By John J. Monahan
By all accounts, it’s been a booming decade for government secrecy.
And judging by the standing-room-only crowd at a Statehouse hearing last week on bills to reform Massachusetts’ public records law and put teeth in the state’s open meeting laws, public tolerance is reaching a boiling point.
A matter of trust is at the heart of the problem.
It’s not a question of whether the public has trust in government. Rather, it is a profound problem that government officials increasingly do not trust the people. Too often it appears they don’t trust the citizenry enough to let them read reports of what they are doing, what they are deciding and why, or how they are doing their jobs.
At the hearing, some citizens told stories of public officials’ improper refusals to disclose public records to cover up wrongdoing.
Some agencies and public officials try to discourage public disclosure by dragging their feet, ignoring mandatory deadlines and telling citizens to file lawsuits if they want the records so badly.
It often seems to some members of the public that there are endless obstacles to obtain public records.
The phrase “We the People” doesn’t mean much without a strong system to ensure that citizens know what the government is doing, argued Gavi Wolfe of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Wolfe and scores of others at the hearing said public officials face no consequences for illegally withholding public documents under Massachusetts law.
These days, many state and local agencies routinely respond to requests for documents with automatic denials or delays for internal reviews — despite required immediate disclosure under the current law.
Much of the hearing focused on excessive copying and search fees now being charged for records.
A records reform bill, killed by the House and Senate last year without much complaint from legislative leaders or the governor, is back before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which held the hearing.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick and the leaders of the House and the Senate frequently talk about the value of transparency when it suits their agenda for selected programs, almost always to the public’s great benefit.
But when it comes to supporting the proposed record reforms, it has not been a top priority.
One fix proposed for the public records law — last revised almost 40 years ago when records were hand-written or typed out on machines — is to authorize courts to award legal fees to requesters when officials unreasonably or illegally deny access to public records.
The proposed changes would also force public officials to make more records routinely available in electronic form and force a reduction in costs charged to people seeking records.
The Senate chairman of the committee, Kenneth J. Donnelly, D-Arlington, questioned during the hearing whether police departments can really afford to have people spend time complying with citizen requests for public records. He mentioned a small layoff in a police department in his district to justify his concern.
Providing access to public records, however, remains a legal duty of police departments under the existing law.
His counterpart in the House, Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, was singing a similar tune, voicing worries that the cost of providing legally required public records at town and city halls would end up raising property taxes.
A move to tighten enforcement of the law, Kocot said, could represent “a serious cost” to cities and towns.
State Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, argued for passage of the bill. He said he was heartened to see so many citizens and organizations attending the hearing, but he has no way of knowing if the bill stands a chance this year.
“Unfortunately, it is getting worse,” he said of public records access. “I think you see more and more examples of state agencies and towns and cities denying basic information to the public and the media, and yet this is a time due to the advances in technology, this information can be provided instantaneously.
“I think it’s the perfect moment to move to this new standard and provide this information accessibly and efficiently,” the senator said. “If the information is formatted properly when first received by the agencies, it could actually be provided much cheaper by the cities and towns and state agencies. This will actually save money for the Commonwealth and the cities and towns.
“The more sunlight on the government process, the more likely that members of the public and the media will be able to find instances of corruption or expensive mistakes and make sure it doesn’t happen to begin with,” he said.