BOSTON — Ahead of the unanimous passage of what they said was the first public records overhaul in more than four decades on Wednesday, a key House lawmaker said the measure would increase transparency without adding an unfunded mandate on cities and towns.
"As a former local official and someone who pays a lot of attention to municipal government, I don't view anything in this bill as an unfunded mandate," House Ways and Means Committee Vice Chairman Stephen Kulik said. He said, "Any public agency, including cities and towns, have responsibilities inherent to provide public access to the documents of what they do."
The legislation (H 3858) requires municipalities and state agencies to designate a public records officer and establishes more firm procedures for appeal to the state's supervisor of records or within the court system.
The bill that cleared the House on a 157-to-0 vote on Wednesday afternoon was almost entirely identical to the version that moved through the Ways and Means Committee Wednesday morning.
The House adopted an amendment to study the "constitutionality and practicality" of subjecting the Legislature, the governor's office and the Judiciary to the public records law, from which they are currently considered exempt.
"The Ways & Means bill contains a number of strong reforms for government transparency," the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts wrote in an email endorsing passage of the bill. "There are also some items we are quite concerned about, but on balance it's a step in the right direction."
Common Cause Massachusetts wrote in an email that it also supported passage of the House bill: "Once the House votes, we can make sure the Senate passes even stronger legislation with everything our state truly needs."
The Senate has yet to take up the bill, a step that won't take place until 2016 as both chambers held their final formal sessions of the year on Wednesday.
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative group that has targeted Democratic lawmakers on their voting records, was more cynical.
"On Beacon Hill, it's easier to spot Elvis than it is to see the inner workings of lawmaking," Mass Fiscal Executive Director Paul Craney said in a statement. "House leadership refused to make their public record proposals available to the public up until today. I'm not surprised 122 lawmakers then voted to exempt themselves from public scrutiny."
Craney was critical of a 122-to-34 procedural move by House Democrats to block a proposal from Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover, seeking to remove the Legislature's exemption from the public records law. The state constitution broadly grants the House the power to govern itself.
House leadership said the issue had already been addressed through the study amendment sponsored by Ipswich Republican Rep. Brad Hill.
Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told the News Service the bill is a "mixed bag," and he said smaller newspapers could be encouraged to demand production of records in court because the bill allows judges to award attorney's fees.
"That's certainly going to make smaller newspapers feel a little bit more comfortable with going to court," Ambrogi said. Ambrogi said he is "concerned" about the period of time municipalities and state agencies would be given to produce records under the bill, while acknowledging that the current 10-day deadline "is ignored more often than it's adhered to."
Under the legislation, cities and towns would have 75 days to produce records and state agencies would have 60 days.
Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, the initial sponsor of the public records reform bill, lauded Speaker Robert DeLeo, recalling prior legislative accomplishments under his tenure.
"If you look at the legacy of this speaker since the year 2009, he has championed ethics reform, campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, now public records reform," Kocot said. "I don't think there's any speaker in the country that has a record of trying to promote transparency as much as this man."