Chelmsford — A legal battle over public records requests in Chelmsford has highlighted statewide problems with the Public Records Act, a law legislators have been trying to improve for a year.
Chelmsford selectman candidate Roland Van Liew requested copies of no-bid contracts from the town. When he felt the town hadn’t complied with his request, he sued.
Meanwhile, a Boston-based woman named Alexandra Edelstein has asked for records of all the town’s purchases off the state bidding list, which the town estimates will take several hundred hours and more than $17,000 to collect.
At least four different bills have been filed at the State House to help citizens and municipalities avoid these kinds of situations, but none have left committee review. State Rep. Cory Atkins, co-sponsoring a few of these bills along with fellow Chelmsford state Rep. Jim Arciero and state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said the Legislature has its hands full.
“In the interim, it’s difficult because everyone is so understaffed because of cuts made to every agency in the commonwealth,” Atkins said.
The state’s equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Massachusetts PRA says most records held by government bodies belong to the public and anyone has the right to look at them.
“People in Massachusetts care very deeply about government,” Eldridge said. “A lot of citizens attend their Town Meetings, Board of Selectmen meetings and School Committee meetings. They put a lot of thought into it. They deserve to have equal access to the documents of their elected officials.”
It’s the government’s job to prepare them for a reasonable fee within a certain period of time, according to the law. But Eldridge questions whether the fees the law sets are reasonable: 20 cents for a photocopied page, 50 cents for a computer printout page and compensation for hours spent on the request.
Further, there are no consequences if a government does not provide the documents. Cases can be taken to court, but the process is lengthy and expensive.
Eldridge, Atkins and Arciero support the solution proposed in S1576, “An Act to Improve Access to Public Records.” The law would limit fees to actual production cost; limit fees for finding and reviewing documents; and reduce copying fees. Additionally, records requestors who go to court would not have to pay legal fees if no valid reason is found for denying the records.
“In my conversations with constituents, many of them have been frustrated with municipal and state government,” Eldridge said. “When they request documents, there’s a long delay or unreasonable costs.”
Asking governments to provide a valid reason for not producing records is a critical step, Eldridge said.
Transparency the key
No such reason is required from citizens – not even those who stress towns’ resources by asking for a large number of documents in a short period of time, or who ask for records whose usefulness is not immediately obvious.
One possibility to address these “gadflies” would be crafting language to distinguish genuine records requests from frivolous ones, according to Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, in a February presentation. But asking records requestors for a reason might not be worth the risk, Wolfe warned.
“It’s dangerous to give the town a means to appeal a request,” Wolfe said. “It’s in government’s interest to obfuscate.”
State Rep. Tom Golden, who represents Chelmsford, suggested any public records request, even an expensive, time-consuming request or one for apparently inconsequential information, should be honored.
“Whatever can be made public, should be,” Golden said. “If everything is as transparent as it can be, it won’t be that much of an issue to get the information.”
S1575, “An Act to Enhance Access to Electronic Records,” may strip away the records-related issues of time and cost with which municipalities struggle. It calls for governments to routinely post significant information online, provide requested records electronically instead of on paper, and design public databases so people can easily sort through information.
“This would significantly eliminate the cost of public records requests and would address concerns on the part of municipal governments about costs,” said Eldridge, who is co-sponsoring the bill.
Atkins, another co-sponsor, agreed.
“We have to get everything up on computers at some point so voters can just view these records on their own,” Atkins said.
Behind the times
According to Wolfe, a main problem with the PRA is that it has not kept up with technology.
“It doesn’t take advantage of advances in technology or used it as a tool for transparency,” Wolfe said. “Posting commonly requested information online makes it searchable, cheap, efficient and eco-frriendly. It pre-empts the need for public records requests.”
Cohen pointed out Chelmsford has won awards for government transparency and posts more information on their site than most other towns, but he said he would support putting even more information online.
Eldridge said putting more public records online might help restore people’s faith in government at a time when many suspect government officials are hiding something, and could encourage civic engagement.