Massachusetts leads the nation in a dubious distinction: state secrecy.
Ours is the only state in the union where all three branches of government — the Legislature, the governor’s office and state judiciary — claim exemption from public records law. It’s not that there are broad loopholes or exceptions; it is simply the case that the rules meant to maintain transparency throughout government barely apply at all to those who represent us on Beacon Hill.
That makes it uniquely hard for Bay Staters to hold their elected officials accountable. This is the people’s business, conducted by politicians that we as voters and taxpayers hire to work on our behalf. Many of the documents that coincide with this work would be available in other states as public records, but unfortunately not in Massachusetts. Correspondences using state email addresses, hearing minutes, financial records and other critical information are considered off-limits to commonwealth residents concerned with how the Legislature conducts itself.
For those who might wonder why a certain bill quietly dies in committee, there’s no requirement to make public who testified to lawmakers about it and what they said. Even committee votes on whether legislation is forwarded — both the overall tally and how members voted — are kept secret. It is quite an affront to representative democracy that legislators can shield themselves from their own constituents on not just how they arrived at their decision on a committee vote but how they actually voted.
As for the executive branch, Massachusetts is one of only two states that give the governor’s office a blanket exemption from public records law. Materials made or received by the governor’s office such as official communications, statistical data and financial statements currently fall into the realm of information the public ostensibly doesn’t need to know.
And while the judicial branch is where considerable withholding of sensitive information is most understandable, there is still room for more transparency in the state’s courts and probation office. Without access to certain administrative and financial records like contracts, audits and operational data, it’s much harder for citizens and officials alike to assess the judiciary’s performance and how it might could improve.
Obviously, politicians are rarely eager to saddle themselves with more accountability, and so arguments against making state government more transparent inevitably arise. The argument that disclosing crucial information will undermine privacy and security can easily be put aside by building in protections for these considerations, allowing for reasonable exemptions. Records can be redacted to protect sensitive information.
No serious person is arguing for completely unrestricted access to all state information. Exemptions are already built into public records law, so there is no reason to completely exempt legislators and governors from laws that mayors, city councils and select boards routinely observe.
Lawmakers also claim that secrecy is necessary to allow the nitty-gritty of deliberation and policy-making and to make deals. Local officials manage to get their work done while their constituents watch. They have been abiding with the Open Meeting Law for decades.
If state officials need secrecy to deliberate, let them produce a good reason and tell their constituents why. A permanent pass on accountability is not the solution for the need for confidentiality when tackling difficult or controversial issues. All of our elected leaders must be as transparent as reasonably possible in performing their jobs.
An upgrade to the state’s governmental transparency is long past due. Some state officials have paid lip service to the issue, though not much of substance has been done. In 2018, a special legislative commission was formed on Beacon Hill to study the matter — and then dissolved without so much as making a recommendation. State government will not make itself more transparent without considerable, unrelenting pressure. Sadly, the mass political constituency needed for that push unfortunately is lacking.
Legislation has been introduced by state Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven (H.3239) and state Sen. James B. Eldridge (S.2048) toward the common-sense solution of applying public records law to the Legislature, though its path forward is predictably fraught. In another approach, The Boston Globe’s editorial board recently called for an amendment to the state’s constitution — though this would require a massive signature drive by proponents as well as one-fourth of the Legislature giving its OK in two consecutive sessions.
Therefore, we call on the Berkshire delegation and lawmakers across the commonwealth to support a push for greater transparency and give the aforementioned legislation a fair and serious look.
If the Legislature can’t or won’t do its job to raise Massachusetts from the bottom of the national barrel in terms of state transparency, then it would unfortunately necessitate a more cumbersome process — a constitutional amendment or a ballot initiative.
This should be a nonpartisan issue. Voters: You deserve to know what goes on in the governor’s office and the state Congress, where our collective interests are supposed to be represented. Call your officials and tell them so.