Reforming the state's public records laws, and putting some teeth in them in terms of enforcement, must be a high priority on Beacon Hill in 2016.
A recent experiment conducted by The Boston Globe, WCVB-TV in Boston and a journalism class at Northeastern University further exposed the extent of the problem in the state. The students sent requests in writing to each of the state's 351 municipalities requesting reports on how much municipal workers earned in 2014 and describing their police department policies on when they can use their weapons. This is information that should be readily available to the press and public and is in most states.
The results were eye-opening in the worst possible way. According to The Globe, 58 percent of the state's towns and cities failed to respond within 10 days, which is required by state law when a written request is made for two public records. Perhaps worse, communities that did not respond often denied the requests for reasons that are illegal, illogical or both.
Some town officials demanded to know why the students wanted the records, a request that in itself violates state law. Some requested payment for the records, with Spencer leading the way with a charge of $1,400 to the students. Dalton, according to The Globe, rejected the request on the grounds that the information contained Social Security numbers and other confidential employee information. As The Globe noted, a public employee's name and salary are public information and must be provided upon request. Private information, like Social Security numbers, can be redacted.
Nine police departments rejected the requests because releasing the information would supposedly impede department operations or jeopardize public safety. These excuses don't wash, especially considering that many communities already post all of this information on line and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association says this kind of information is required to be released under state law.
The state Legislature is considering bills toughening public records laws and instituting penalties for violations to discourage communities from simply blowing off records requests. Massachusetts is now just one of three states in which citizens can't recoup legal fees or win damages if they are successful in court efforts to get public records. Unfortunately, the legislation has been watered down in committee in the face of objections from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which is an advocate of the status quo.
Attorney General Maura Healey, the state's top enforcement officer, is a strong advocate of reform, and Governor Charlie Baker reacted to The Globe-WCVB report by saying towns must abide by public records laws. With this backing, we hope the Legislature will stand up to pressure from special interest groups in the weeks ahead and dramatically strengthen the state's weak public records laws. Voters should insist on it.