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Senate Approves Overhaul Of Massachusetts Public Records Law

Supporters of a bill that would overhaul the state's public records law said Thursday's 35-0 vote in the Massachusetts Senate would provide a smoother path for citizens and journalists seeking to access government documents.

The bill establishes new timetables for state agencies and municipalities to comply with public records requests. It also sets limits on fees charged for public records and would reimburse legal fees to people who successfully challenge a government decision to deny a request.

Critics say the state's current law is outdated and puts barriers in the way of record-seekers.

Differences between the Senate bill and an earlier House version must now be worked out.

Here are some things to know about the public records bill.

Why Change The Rules?

Critics have long argued the state's 1973 open records law is outdated and lacks enforcement clout, allowing state agencies and municipalities to routinely sidestep requests for public documents. Record-seekers have also been subjected to exorbitant fees — one oft-cited example is a blogger from Somerville who said the city wanted $200,000 for records related to parking tickets. Proponents of an overhaul also say the law hasn't kept up with dramatic shifts in technology. "The world has changed substantially in the intervening decades but our public records law has not," said Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester. "It's still stuck in the 1970s."

What Would The Bill Do?

The Senate bill would require agencies to respond to public records requests within 15 days, but would allow for extensions to 30 days or 60 days for more complicated requests. Agencies would be required to inform requestors within 10 days if they are not going to meet the initial 15-day deadline. An earlier House bill set a 10-day compliance deadline, but would allow for delays of up to 60 days for state agencies and 75 days for municipalities. The bills would require that any fees charged by agencies for public records be "reasonable," and that records be delivered in electronic format whenever possible. Amendments added to the Senate bill Thursday would designate homeowner insurance rate requests, and documents related to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority retirement board, as public records in the future.

How Would It Be Enforced?

Critics of the state's current public records law say it offered little incentive to agencies to comply in a timely fashion, if at all. Supporters of the bill say it would put teeth in the law by allowing document seekers who are denied access to public records to recoup legal fees — in most cases — if they successfully overturn the denial in court.

Would The Legislature Itself Be Covered By The Rules?

No. Neither the House in its version nor the Senate removed the Legislature's exemption from the public records law. Lawmakers have argued the exemption is needed to protect, among other things, confidential messages to and from constituents. Legislative leaders have expressed a willingness to revisit the exemption in the future years.


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