Mass. Senate Unveils New Open-Records Bill

     BOSTON (CN) – The Massachusetts Senate released its own version of a new public-records bill that passed the state House last fall.
     The Senate bill, S.1676, includes many of the improvements already passed by the House, with additional stipulations requiring state agencies to make all published opinions, annual reports, reports to the General Court, and minutes from open meetings available on the agency’s website.
     The bill, which was released last week from the Senate’s Committee on Ways and Means, is expected to be voted on in the next formal Senate session on Thursday, Feb. 4.
     “The Senate bill is very strong,” Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said in a statement. “It will accomplish the goals we have been fighting for such as reining in outrageous charges for public records and putting needed teeth into enforcement of the law. If passed as is, Massachusetts will no longer have one of the worst public records laws in the country. But it is critical that the bill not get watered down on the floor or in conference committee.”
     Much like the House bill, the Senate’s version sets caps on copy fees at 5 cents per page, and agencies cannot charge more than the lowest hourly rate for an employee qualified to fulfill records requests, with the first two hours provided at no cost.
     State agencies would have to provide the first four hours of fulfilling requests at no cost, with a cap of $25 per hour after that.
     If the bill ultimately passes, public records requests must be responded to within 10 days and municipalities have 75 additional days to fulfill the request, while state agencies have 60 days.
     The Senate bill adds a $100 daily fine for agency employees who do not respond with 10 days.
     Courts would have the authority to award attorneys’ fees and court costs, and they could enforce $1,000 to $5,000 payments to potential plaintiffs if officials have been found to act maliciously or in bad faith.
     Under the Senate bill, Municipalities and state agencies would be required to appoint at least one records access officer to help facilitate records requests and to ensure compliance with the records law. Public records that exist in an electronic format, such as text documents and PDFs, would have to be provided in those formats when requested.
     The bill comes in light of a report from the Center for Public Integrity released last fall that ranked Massachusetts 40th in the nation for public access to information, as well as an ongoing fight over public records pitting the Bay State Examiner and the Boston Globe against the State Police.
     The Senate bill immediately garnered praise from a series of open records groups who have been advocating for reforms to the state’s public records laws.
     “They really got it right,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “These are the practical, tested reforms that are needed to make the law more than just empty words on a page. We’ve described the current law as a flashlight without working batteries. This proposal from the Senate would recharge it by improving enforcement and affordability. The Senate President and Chairwoman Spilka deserve a lot of credit for putting out an excellent piece of legislation, and we hope they’ll fight to keep it strong.”

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