These last few weeks have been hectic for transparency advocates in Massachusetts. Shortly after the disappointing announcement that the vote for public records reform would be bumped to September, Governor Charlie Baker finally addressed the subject, proposing a series of sweeping, state-level reforms that would be implemented in the next couple of weeks. After the previous Governor’s abysmal track record on the subject, the news was as surprising as it was welcome. Good for you, Governor.
But re-examined a couple weeks later in the sobering light of day, the proposed reforms come off less as a great leap forward and more as a small step and a reminder of how far we have to go.
This is not to say that these reforms aren’t unequivocally a good thing – they certainly are. As we’ve written about time and time again, high public records processing fees are a denial by any other name, and standardized fees – and more importantly, no charge for electronic documents – are a great way to curb that borderline illegal practice. The same can be said for the appointment of a designated officer to be in charge of tracking public records requests – heck, that was part of our transparency resolutions for 2015. These are simple, fair and badly needed fixes.
But just because you plugged the bucket that you’re using to bail out the ship doesn’t mean it’s stopped sinking.
Massachusetts needed these fixes, but it still needs to address the even larger issues that cripple public records law and keeps its citizens in the dark. Issues like our closed “open” meetings, that reveal only the final product of negotiation and not the wheeling and dealing that led to the scrubbed outcome. And the neutered appeals process that requires citizens to pay for court costs to combat delinquent and non-responsive state agencies. Or the fact that we are one of a handful of states where the entire legislature, the judiciary, and the head of the executive branch are all exempt from public records laws.
For that last one, we need to address the elephant in the room. The Governor’s Office remains exempt from public records laws, and no meaningful discussion of real reform can avoid that fact. The legal reasoning behind the exemption is flimsy. We strongly urge Governor Baker to recognize this and remain optimistic that he will do the right thing to address it.
This brings us to our main point. The recent reforms by the Baker Administration are a wonderful beginning – a long-overdue spritz of Windex on the opacity of Massachusetts government. But only so long as it truly is a beginning. There has to be further, more profound reform to truly serve the citizens of the Commonwealth. If this is all there is and the bill gets tabled in the fall – a possibility in the absence of support by the Governor – then we will be left with a Band-Aid on still-gaping wound and a stinging reminder that our best chance for true institutional reform has since passed us by.
Governor Baker campaigned on good government and has already demonstrated that he is on the side of transparency. As the administration’s challenges mount and he begins getting pressure from vested interests to leave well enough alone, we want him to stay there and take the next step toward reform.
J. Patrick Brown is the Editor of Muckrock.com, an organization which facilitates public record requests and serves as an independent news source covering government transparency issues nationwide.