September’s Come and Gone – and Where’s Public Records Reform?
How fitting is it that a bill meant to strengthen our anemic public records law morphed into a perfect illustration of just how sorry government transparency is in Massachusetts?
As I wrote about at the beginning of the month, public records reform came in with a roar at the start of summer. The combination of journalists, open government advocates, and even everyday concerned citizens who packed the State House, bringing testimonies of the abuse, incompetence, and neglect they’ve experienced first hand made one thing clear – we needed change, and we needed it now. Massachusetts should take its rightful place as pack leader when it comes to good government, not a straggler, lingering among the worst of states.
And it did genuinely looked like that change was coming. There was momentum, there was aisle-spanning interest, and most importantly, a sense sense that change was long overdue.
But as is so often the case in Massachusetts,nothing suddenly happened.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, among others, came out against reform, arguing that it was an “unfunded mandate” that would essentially turn all town clerks into full-time public records officers. Proponents disagreed. A compromise was worked out that would table the vote until September – giving the legislature time to work with the MMA.
As soon as the bill left the public’s eye, momentum drooped. An invisible moving target doesn’t give people much to work with in terms of sustaining interest, and few things take the oomph out the argument like delay.
So September is passed and we’re no clearer on when bill’s is coming to vote than we were a month ago. No compromise has been announced, and we appear to be much where we were at the start, except without our previous advantageous energy. And without that the bill can drift away
In like a lion, out like a lamb.
What happened? Our state’s defaulting from disclosure and open meetings to secrecy and backroom deals. The fact that we allow our government to stay hidden in plain sight means much of what should be a public process – the democratic process of a democracy – is reduced to a few people behind a closed door arguing.
The recent news of scandal the DCF – including the agency charging thousands for records it was legally required to have in the first place – makes one thing clear. Even if this attempt to fix public records law doesn’t change, the need for it to change has never been more dire. Today, tomorrow, next week – the time for reform is always going to be now.
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.