BOSTON (CN) - In the waning hours of the 2015 session, the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously passed a long-awaited update to the state's open-records laws.
The bill, which still awaits approval from the Senate and governor, would limit the cost of record requests and increase the public's ability to challenge municipalities and state agencies for late or lack of compliance with records requests.
"It's an important step in the right direction," said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "The bill contains some much-needed reforms, especially attorney fees, and it begins to rein in the kind of outrageous costs we've seen agencies charge people for basic information. We have real concerns about some elements, and we hope to see significant improvements before it gets to the governor's desk, but this represents a step forward. We are urging House members to support the bill."
Slated to take effect in October 2016 if signed by the governor, the new law would give municipalities and state agencies 10 days to respond to public-records requests.
While municipalities would have 75 days after that to fulfill the requests, state agencies would have 60 days.
The commonwealth will cap fees at 5 cents per copied page, and municipalities can charge only 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 at no cost, with a cap of $25 per hour after that.
The law would give frustrated applicants 30 days to challenge unanswered records requests or excessive fees.
Courts would have the authority to award attorneys' fees and court costs. Upon finding that officials acted maliciously or in bad faith, the courts can also enforce payments of $1,000 to $5,000 for plaintiffs.
Municipalities and state agencies would be required to appoint at least one records-access officer to help facilitate records requests and to ensure compliance. Public records that exist in an electronic format, such as text documents and PDFs, must be provided in those formats when requested.
Two weeks earlier, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Massachusetts at No. 40 in the nation for public access to information. An ongoing fight over public records between the Bay State Examiner and the Boston Globe against the State Police also set the backdrop for the legislative burst Thursday.
"We're glad that the House is taking this up," Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said in a statement. "Speaker [Robert] DeLeo deserves a lot of credit for championing the bill and for ensuring that we are moving towards greater transparency. His leadership has been critical to the many important reforms in the bill that will help citizens hold government accountable. That said, the Massachusetts public records law is one of the worst in the country and we will continue to fight for more reforms as we move through the legislative process."
Though the Massachusetts Municipalities Association had initially opposed the bill, calling its requirements of municipalities too onerous, a compromise on which the House ultimately voted softened the group.
"Overall, the House bill is a vast improvement over previous versions, but it still would make the public records act more administratively challenging and litigious for cities and towns," MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said in a statement. "The House Ways and Means Committee's version of the public records reform bill includes greater flexibility for cities and towns than previous iterations and drafts of the bill, including more clarity on timelines, retention of much of the ability of cities and towns to be reimbursed for the cost of fulfilling records requests, and greater clarity in terms of enforcement, and these improvements reflect the House leadership's openness to the municipal perspective."
The state Senate resumes its legislative session in January.
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