The clock is ticking towards December 30, 2017. As part of the 2016 public records reform legislation, An Act to Improve Public Records, a special legislative committee was established to “examine the accessibility of information concerning the legislative process of the general court and the expansion of the definition of public records.”
The establishment of the committee is a win for government transparency advocates. The committee, made of members of the legislature, can solicit input from journalists, public policy research groups and other individuals interested in the process.
One of the specific missions of the committee is to determine the constitutionality of subjecting the Governor’s Office, the legislature and the judiciary to public records laws. The law, as presently written, excludes these entities from the definition of a “public body” and hence are not subject to it, as cited in the court case, Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council.
We believe that the exclusions covering the legislature are unconstitutional. And we believe that, at a minimum, the Governor’s Office continuing to remain behind the cloak of Lambert is bad public policy.
We contend that the legislature’s self-exemption from the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law (OML) impedes the public’s ability to exercise the rights conferred to it under the Massachusetts State Constitution. A public kept in the dark about critical policy decisions cannot hold its elected representatives accountable.
Article V of our state’s Declaration of Rights requires that the branches of government “at all times” be accountable to the people. Restricting the public’s access to legislative meetings and records fundamentally undermines that basic right.
Our Constitution goes so far as to vest the Commonwealth’s citizens with the right to “give instructions to their representatives.” The legislature’s lack of transparency negates the public’s ability to exercise this right because, of course, access is required to reasonably determine what ‘instructions’ should be made.
As for the Governor’s Office in Massachusetts, it is one of only a small handful that claim full blanket exemption from state public records laws.
In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave Massachusetts an “F” for public access to information, with one of the reasons for the low ranking being the Supreme Judicial Court’s 1997 ruling in Lambert v. Judicial Nominating Council that the Governor’s Office is exempt from public records requests.
In its most recent report on Massachusetts, The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press states, “the public records and open meetings laws of Massachusetts are among the weakest in any of the 50 states.” The Committee cites both the explicit statutory exemption of the state legislature and the implicit judicial exemption of the Governor’s Office from transparency laws.
It’s high time to for the legislature and the Governor to act on these on these inadequacies of our democratic process. Let’s hope that this December, the special legislative committee agrees.