Boston Herald: State often keeps public in dark

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Read this article on the Boston Herald’s website.


Author(s): Shawn Musgrave, Mary Z. Connaughton

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis praised the sunlight of public scrutiny as “the best of disinfectants.” The dark and dusty corners of Massachusetts government need far more sunshine.

The commonwealth enacted its public records law in 1966, the same year Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act. While the world looks very different than it did in the age of LBJ and Gov. John Volpe, our public records law becomes more antiquated each year, leaving far too many avenues for officials to avoid disclosure.

Pending legislation filed by state Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton) could begin to change that.

Massachusetts performs dismally when it comes to government openness. In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity gave the commonwealth a failing grade for public access to information. The center found burdensome fees, unreasonable wait times and unresponsive agencies to be routine.

MuckRock, a Boston-based website that has submitted more than 2,000 requests in Massachusetts since 2009, finds similar obstacles. On the whole, compliance is more the exception than the rule.

The first step in obtaining public information is figuring out which government office has it. But it can be maddeningly difficult even to get this far. In a hearing on Kocot’s bill, state Rep. Denise Provost recalled her days in Somerville City Hall, where she watched in horror as clerks bounced requests between offices to frustrate citizens into giving up entirely.

As a critical first step, the bill requires each office to name a point person for records and to post the person’s contact information publicly.

Even if a resourceful citizen hunts down the appropriate contact, there’s no guarantee an agency will answer. Current law requires agencies to respond within 10 days, but officials face no penalty for ignoring requests or dragging their feet. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, for instance, has ignored one reporter’s request for more than three years without sanction.

It’s not just the BRA. According to MuckRock data, state agencies take a staggering 76 days on average to respond. And that excludes instances where agencies fail to answer at all, which is disturbingly common.

Under Kocot’s legislation, Massachusetts would join the 41 states in which citizens can recoup attorney’s fees when they win lawsuits for government documents. This makes litigation feasible for those wrongfully denied information and creates an incentive for officials to disclose information to which the public has a right.

Even if citizens can get documents, current law allows government to charge unreasonable fees to obtain them. Police departments can charge up to 50 cents per page for reports and 88 cents per email; Worcester’s police chief believes a dollar a page is reasonable for mailed printouts.

Under Kocot’s bill, fees — like 5 cents for grayscale copies and 7 cents for color — would reflect the true cost of fulfilling requests. Lower photocopy rates will also prod agencies to release records electronically.

Stalling, silence and unreasonable costs are typical responses to public records requests in Massachusetts. The commonwealth’s citizens deserve better, and this legislation offers workable solutions for greater transparency.

With the Legislature’s approval, more sunlight can stream in.

Shawn Musgrave is projects editor with MuckRock. Mary Z.?Connaughton is director of finance and administration with Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. “As You Were Saying” is a regular Herald feature.