Sometimes a gust of wind pushes an almost certain home run into foul territory. Last spring, we saw it happen at the State House when the winds turned dark.
The hearing room was packed with a bipartisan coalition of journalists, open-government activists, policy groups, citizens of the Commonwealth, and even Secretary of State William Galvin. All seemed united in the clear message: Massachusetts’ public records laws were inadequate, out of date and in need of reform. After all, transparency is the cornerstone of a vigorous democracy. The matter at hand was a bill filed by state Rep. Peter Kocot, written to provide a healthy chunk of that transparency.
But not long after the hearing room emptied, rumblings by the Massachusetts Municipal Association brought the bill to a screeching halt. Months later, a milquetoast version of the bill emerged.
The new legislation brought with it provisions that actually extended the amount of time in which an agency would be legally required to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request, going from 10 days to a whopping 60 days for state agencies, and 75 days for municipalities. That would put Massachusetts at over three times the 20-day requirement for national agencies, and 20 times that of some more transparency-minded states like Missouri. It also stripped the bill of a key reform requiring an agency that loses in a public records request court case to reimburse the plaintiff for legal fees incurred—instead, the new bill leaves it to the judge's discretion.
How could the legislature dilute a public records law in a state that already ranks at or near rock-bottom in the nation in terms of government transparency? We will never know the specifics because the answers lie in the deep crevices of the State House, far from public view.
Even when it comes to the issue of transparency, the public's work was crafted behind closed doors.
A healthy government doesn't operate that way.
What started as a massive public undertaking to demand a more open and transparent government was decided by private conversations among lawmakers and lobbyists. What concessions were made, what favors were traded, the actual day-to-day doings that make up the democratic process on Beacon Hill, are inaccessible to us because the open meeting law that applies to every town and city hall in Massachusetts doesn't apply to the State House.
Statutorily speaking, how legislative sausage is made is not the public's concern. Legislators want us to be content with the final decision—even when the decision limits our right to know.
While not good, this revamped public records bill—likely up for vote next month—is not all bad. It's a step in the right direction because it reduces the public cost for public records and at least opens the possibility of plaintiffs recouping legal fees on public records cases—but it's a baby step.
Transparency advocates now have a new poster child for just how badly public records reform is needed in Massachusetts—the public records reform bill process itself. If such dark winds kick up when the fight for open government, imagine how fierce the winds blow on other when the fight isn’t for an issue other than transparency?