By Michael P. Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
The Massachusetts House and Senate each voted unanimously Wednesday to advance to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk a compromise bill that represents the first major overhaul of public records access laws in 43 years.
In addition to requiring state agencies and cities and towns to designate records officers to field requests, the proposal requires public agencies to provide requested public records within 10 business days, while allowing for extensions beyond that deadline capped at five business days from the original request for a state agency and 15 for a municipality. The bill further caps the length of appeals if records are denied and requesters appeal to the Secretary of State.
The bill (H 4333) also encourages public agencies to make electronic public records more readily available to requesters when records are already in electronic formats, and limits the costs public entities may charge for making copies or for employee time spent assembling records.
“This is a core issue of making our government, our democracy accessible to everyone,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who served on the six-member conference committee that agreed to a consensus bill this week. “Public records are, as the name says, public.”
Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, said the bill “struck such an exquisite balance” between privacy concerns and transparency.
Lawmakers who worked on reconciling the House version with a Senate bill kept their conference committee meetings open and invited the media to cover the meetings – a departure from the usual closed conference meetings where lawmakers make decisions on major bills.
Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem, the Senate’s lead negotiator on the bill, said the bill allows a municipality to refuse to furnish records if someone has failed to pick up previously produced records, a situation that public officials said they’ve encountered. “If you don’t pick up and pay for a record you are not entitled to the next one,” she said.
Rep. Stephen Kulik, one of the bill’s negotiators, said it would not add unfunded mandates onto municipalities, which he said handle the bulk of requests.
Sen. Donald Humason of Westfield, another conferee, said smaller cities and towns with fewer employees would be able to comply with the bill’s requirements.
The bill also permits the courts to award reasonable attorney fees and costs when a records requester obtains relief, and designates as public records documents made or received by entities that receive funds from the MBTA for the payment of pensions.
A commission of legislators would be created under the bill to examine expanding the public records law to cover aspects of the legislative process on Beacon Hill. The bill calls on that commission to also look at “the constitutionality and practicality of subjecting the general court, the executive office of the governor, and the judicial branch to the public records law.” A report would be due by Dec. 30, 2017.
“Governor Baker was pleased to institute a new public records reform policy for the executive branch to make state government more transparent and is pleased that many of the concepts from the administration’s initiative were included in this legislation. The administration will carefully review the bill,” Elizabeth Guyton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker, said in a statement.