The sunshine is waiting to spill into our public records, often kept at a distance from the public, with multiple barriers put up to prevent free flow of the information.
Strangely, it’s become more and more difficult for the public to obtain records. The costs are often high and the responses to requests are untimely. The public records law must be restructured to ensure that records that are legally supposed to be public truly are.
A lot has changed since the last comprehensive reform to the Massachusetts public records law in1973. One thing that hasn’t changed is the level of access to information that the public has every right to see. We need to update our laws to help, not limit, the public’s access to information about our government. Open government is essential for a healthy democracy, and our public records law is one of the most important tools people have for holding government accountable in Massachusetts.
It is my strong belief that by making our public records law more accessible, the state Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker could take a strong step in restoring faith in government. This is critical if elected officials are going to successfully tackle issues that concern residents, including fixing the MBTA, establishing a fairer tax policy, improving K-12 and higher education, and combating global warming.
Public records systems have changed dramatically over the last four decades. There are many more records, in many different and new forms – electronic communications, email archives, and databases. Records management has become more complex. Today, people expect information at the touch of a button, especially in Massachusetts, arguably one of the most tech-savvy states in the nation. They have a right to public information without jumping through hoops. A few bills I sponsored this session move the commonwealth closer to that goal.
This session, I refiled two important public records reform bills that make good on the commonwealth’s commitment to making public records publicly accessible. S.1633 An Act Improving Access to Public Records, creates a point person position at state agencies to expedite responses to record requests and puts systems in place to help with the management of public records requests. The bill would also cut fees for finding and reviewing records and even eliminate fees in the case of simple electronic records. It would also permit requestors to obtain attorneys’ fees if they have been denied access to public records without valid reasons.
My other bill, S.1638 An Act to Enhance Access to Electronic Public Records, would make it routine for public records to be provided to requestors in electronic form, and for information of significant interest to the public to be posted online. It would do this by ensuring that electronic recordkeeping systems are designed so public information can be extracted, segregated from exempt information, and provided to requestors in usable formats. It also clarifies that extracting public record information from a database is part of the process of providing access; it does not constitute the creation of a new record.
Updating our antiquated public records law is integral for a healthy democracy. Making public documents more accessible will help people see what government is doing and lead to greater transparency and openness. After all, it is one of the most important tools citizens have for holding government accountable. New laws should enhance freedom of information, while reflecting the ever-evolving digital age we live in.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) represents the Middlesex and Worcester district, and serves as Senate Vice-chairman of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which oversees the state’s public records law.
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