Public records bill still alive as talks continue
BOSTON >> Adopting a spirit perhaps befitting the first major overhaul of a public records law, six lawmakers reconciling House and Senate versions of the legislation plan to keep their meetings accessible to the public as they solicit commentary from interested parties.
The conference committee met for the first time Wednesday afternoon in a backroom off the House chamber where Rep. Peter Kocot invited advocates to share their thoughts on the differing bills (H 3858 / S 2120). The bills were sent to conference on Feb. 11.
"The Massachusetts public records law hasn't been updated substantially in about 40 years and it is widely regarded as one of the weakest, if not the weakest, in the nation for a number of reasons," Common Cause of Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot told the conference committee.
John Robertson, legislative director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said cities and towns want an "adequate period of time to reply," and they want to be able to cover the cost of producing the records so the public records law does not become "an unfunded mandate." Robertson also said the enforcement provisions, which in both House and Senate versions include some variation of attorney fees for successful plaintiffs, should have "discretion in each part of the process."
Advocates for requiring more public access to government records prefer the Senate version, which makes attorney's fees mandatory, except in certain cases, and includes a shorter timespan for state government agencies and municipal offices to comply with requests.
When Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Worthington Democrat, was the only lawmaker in the room, he joked, "All right, I can decide this real quick."
"Good," Robertson quipped.
Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat and the lead negotiator for the Senate, said one of her chief concerns is ensuring that the law is "easy to understand." Lovely said that although she is an attorney she has difficulty understanding the current law.
In addition to several reporters and representatives from the municipal association, the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause were present at the meeting. Jason Crosby, from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, set up a camera to record the meeting.
Advocates on all sides appeared to agree that the three major issues are the timeframe for compliance, fees charged for production of documents, and enforcement mechanisms.
Kocot said he would invite interested parties, including Attorney General Maura Healey and Secretary of State William Galvin, to appear before the conference committee, and he said public perception was not a consideration in the decision to keep the meeting open.
"The only optics I'm interested in is making sure that we have a hearing process that's fair and gives the members of the conference committee the information they need to make the best possible choices," Kocot told reporters outside the meeting room.
Lawmakers from time to time defend the usual practice of closing conference committees to the public, arguing that privacy allows for more candid discussions. Neither Kocot, nor Lovely or Kulik, indicated that they thought the open conference committee would impede the discussion.
"I think we'll be able to have a perfectly candid and open conversation here on this issue," Kulik said. A veteran of closed-door conference committees on the budget, Kulik said the enormity of the annual spending bill makes it an inferior candidate for open conference committees.
He said, "On the budget it's mainly the size and scope of what we're dealing with that I think it works better to be meeting in executive session. But I think with this bill, which I think is very complex but limited in scope to a particular issue, I think we'll try it. We'll do it. I think it will work out fine."
Wilmot recalled sitting in on conference committee meetings in the past, and said open conferences is "the way business used to be done."
"Members do find that it can be embarrassing to have frank conversations in public. That's unfortunately the price of transparency. Sometimes you get embarrassed," Wilmot said. Asked what she thought of the public records conference committee meeting in public, Wilmot said, "It's great. Transparency is a good thing. Let's see how it goes forward. Not all decisions are going to be made in open session. One-on-one conversations are going to continue to happen as they should. You can't and shouldn't prohibit that."
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