BOSTON (AP) -- A Beacon Hill committee has recommended lawmakers take a second look at the Massachusetts Legislature’s long-standing exemption from the state’s open meeting law.
The recommendation is part of a bill which seeks to update and strengthen the state’s public records laws -- including making it easier for the press and citizens to obtain official documents faster and in an electronic form.
The bill, which won a favorable recommendation from the Committee on State Administration last week, would also create a special commission to study the possibility of applying Massachusetts’ open meetings law to the House and Senate.
Lawmakers are currently exempt from the open meeting law, and routinely conduct some of their business -- such as holding legislative caucuses and debating portions of bills like the state budget -- behind closed doors with no written record.
First Amendment groups, journalists and others have long argued that the state’s public records law is outdated and that requests are frequently ignored or rejected by government agencies, and when material is released, it often is delivered in bulky hard copy with an exorbitant fee attached.
The bill would encourage more electronic records-keeping and, when possible, allow some records to be obtained free of charge from government websites.
"We love the bill. It’s great," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Massachusetts Common Cause. "This bill would put teeth into the law."
The bill also requires every state agency to designate "records access officers" to handle requests. They would have 15 days to comply with a request.
The proposal also tries to keep down the cost of obtaining records on paper. For hard copies, agencies would be barred from charging more than the actual cost of reproducing the record. No more than 5 cents a page could be charged for standard-sized black and white copies.
The bill also allows the fee to be waived if the request "is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of (government) operations."
At an October hearing at the Statehouse, representatives of The Associated Press and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association expressed support for capping the fees for copies of public records at the amount it costs the state agency to produce them.
The bill also requires every state agency to make reasonable efforts to provide free Internet access to a slew of public documents in searchable form including annual reports, winning bids for public contracts, notices of hearings, reports to lawmakers and final opinions, decisions, orders, or votes from agencies.
The bill also seeks to eliminate outdated portions of the existing law including the requirement that all public records be printed on "paper made of linen rags and new cotton clippings, well sized with animal sizing and well finished or on one hundred per cent bond paper sized with animal glue or gelatin."
The bill has now been referred to the Rules Committee. It has yet to be approved by either the House or Senate.