By Olya Yordanyan
BU News Service
On the last day of this year’s formal legislative session, after long discussions, the Massachusetts House unanimously passed a much-anticipated bill to improve access to public records.
The bill (H.3858) was reviewed for a few days in the Joint Committee on Ways and Meansand is the revised version of a draft law (H.3665).
The bill amends state laws that have not been significantly amended for years. There has been a huge public interest in the improvement of access to public records after complaints about high fees and delays in provision of a requested record.
The bill sets up more detailed regulations for provision of requested records.
Under the bill, a public record could be requested and acquired electronically. Storage of records should be organized in a way that public information is accessible and retrievable, while exempt information remains redacted.
Every agency shall appoint one or more “records access officers,” who should be responsible for facilitating the records provision process.
Under the bill, public record officers should provide requested information within 10 business days. If an agency or municipality is unable to do so, a public record officer should provide a written notice indicating the estimated cost and date of providing the requested record. The indicated date should not be more than 60 days for agencies and 75 days for municipalities.
The bill also establishes a standard fee for providing a public record, determining a maximum of 5 cents for a single- or double-sided black-and-white copy.
A petitioner may also appeal a decision of an agency or municipality to withhold a record or part of it, and agencies or municipalities are responsible for proving the validity of such decision. If a court finds that an agency or municipality fails to provide a record in timely manner, “punitive damages” may be imposed in an amount not more than $ 5000.
In addition, the bill would set up a special legislative commission to “examine the accessibility of information concerning the legislatives process” of the Legislature itself.
The bill’s earlier version (H.3665) was strongly supported by the Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, who even started a petition initiative to reform public records, if the amendments would have not been approved.
“The Secretary is not commenting on the bill at this stage,” Galvin’s press officer Brian McNiff said on the phone prior to the vote.
Common Cause Massachusetts, a public interest group supporting open government, which had some opposition towards the previous version of the bill, said that they support this bill.
“It is not perfect, but it is a step of improvement,” the organization’s assistant director Eric Kashdan said.
He noted that Common Cause is particularly pleased by one provision, under which, state courts can order the losing party to pay “reasonable attorney fees and litigation costs.”
MassPIRG, a local public interest group, also backs the bill.
“There are steps forward, and we have little steps backwards,” MassPIRG’s legislative director Deirdre Cummings said after the bill was passed.
Cummings noted that the timeframe set for agencies and municipalities to provide a request record following the written notification of a recipient is too long.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, an organization representing interests of city and town officials, which backs “balanced changes,” issued a statement on the bill.
“The version of public records bill (h.3858) …. includes greater flexibility for cities and town than previous iterations and drafts of the bill, including more clarity on timelines,” the message reads.
The bill needs to be passed in the Massachusetts Senate and approved by the governor to become a law.