From the Green Line extension’s woes, to the narrowly dodged disaster of the Olympics, to even the text messages and emails at the heart of BradyGate, it’s hard to think of a time where transparency has played a more prominent role in Massachusetts public discourse. If the Commonwealth finds itself in need of a new motto, “Trust, but verify” would make a strong contender.
As is all too often the case, despite the critical role transparency has played in shaping the events of summer, and the lip service being paid to it by people and politicians alike, the mechanisms that ensure public disclosure remain outdated and obsolete.
Unless we act fast, we’ll lose the best chance we’ve had at fixing that in years.
Just a few months ago, journalists, open government advocates, and even members of the general public who had been personally injured by the ossified and often combative public records process in this state, united around one clear message: we need to fix our state’s laughable freedom of information laws, and we need to do it now. Two bills offering reform were under consideration, and while the changes they proposed were just a step in the right direction – creating designated public records clerks, requiring delinquent agencies to pay for lost transparency lawsuits, necessitating the release of digital copies as a means of curbing the practice of high duplication costs – it still felt like a leap forward.
To its credit, the legislature seemed ready to listen. Even Secretary of State William Galvin –– rose to the occasion, heartily endorsing the bill, and making it clear that not only was this something that needed to happen, but it needed to happen now. The vote was set, and it looked like after years on the bottom rung of least transparent states, we’d at least be somewhere in the middle before the end of June.
So, what happened?
Two things. One was the growing opposition – most notably the Massachusetts Municipal Association – who raised concerns that the bill was an “unfunded mandate,” and that greedy lawyers would capitalize on the opportunity to be recoup attorney’s fees to bleed agencies dry. The not inconsiderable clout of the MMA pushed the vote to September, at which point a new bill, with minor tweaks addressing these issues, would be debated.
The second was the dwindling support. While it would be unfair and inaccurate to say that the groups that pushed for this issue just stopped advocating for it – they certainly didn’t, and credit goes to groups like MASSterlist for keeping the discussion going – it is notoriously difficult to sustain the level of energy necessary for reform. By allowing the issue to get kicked to September, the legislature let the clear consistent message of reform peter out as new issues like police body cams and the Governor’s effort at public records modernization took center stage.
We’ve come far, but must remain steadfast to get Massachusetts the tools it needs to ensure that those, whether elected or appointed, actin the public’s best interest.
When the bill resurfaces in the coming weeks, we owe it to ourselves to not let it die without a fight.
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.