Public listings could go private

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Cities and towns are required by law every January or February to compile a list of every resident's name, date of birth, address, occupation, veteran status and nationality. Those lists are printed in local residential street listings and made available to the public for varying fees.

The information also is used by clerks to compile registered voter lists and potential juror lists, also public documents.

Two state lawmakers have filed a bill that would prevent city and town clerks from disclosing these residential street listings to the public, a move that has sparked concern among some town clerks and legislators.

"Some people fear this information shouldn't be out to the public because of what's happening to our society today, but you can go to the phone book or somewhere else and get the same information. It hasn't been proven to me that we should rescind this," said Tewksbury Town Clerk Elizabeth Carey.

The bill, filed by Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, and Rep. Lewis Evangelidis, R-Holden, still would require cities and towns to inventory residents each year.

Those street lists, however, would be made available upon request only for federal, state and local governmental use, guaranteeing that police, fire and emergency medical personnel still would have access to the valuable directory.

The potential change comes several months after Chief Justice Margaret Marshall ruled on a case that now allows public officials to withhold documents and information deemed protected by them under attorney-client privilege from public records law.

Murray filed the bill on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Town Clerks, but her office declined to comment yesterday.

Evangelidis said he partnered with Murray after receiving complaints from some constituents that the names of minors were being included on the lists.

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Plymouth Town Clerk Laurence Pizer, who helped write the legislation, said his reasons run deeper than just responding to residents who have expressed concern about their personal information being made public.

"We live and work off open records and are responsive to the idea that records should be open unless there's a reason for them not to be," he said. "I think there's a reason in this case."

Current law protects children aged 3 to 17 from having their addresses published, as well as public safety officials and their families, but it does not clearly define who qualifies for the public safety exemption.

Poor participation in the annual surveys also has made it difficult to compile accurate records that present a complete picture of who lives in each town, Pizer said.

"There is definitely a public interest in having the voting list public. I don't think that necessarily fits for the street list," Pizer said, adding that restricting access to the street listings would make it easier for town clerks to compile accurate lists, thus better serving the public interest.

Murray's bill had a hearing in October before the joint legislative Committee on Election Laws and was reported out favorably. It now sits in the Senate Ways and Means Committee for review.

State Rep. Jamie Eldridge, a House member of the Committee on Election Laws, said he is troubled by the idea of cutting back on what has always been public information.

"In the age of the Internet, the notion that somehow you're going to prevent someone from finding out where a person lives is kind of silly," Eldridge said.

He said the street listing contains valuable information for residents, including citizen organizations that might be rallying around a local issue such as a tax override, and should be kept public.

Sen. Steven C. Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he has not yet fully reviewed the bill and has not heard from both sides on the issue.


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