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Mass. Lawmakers Urged To Update Public Records Law

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In, theory Massachusetts public records are open to anyone — but often are not freely available in practice.

Records requests are frequently ignored or rejected by government agencies, and when material is released, it often is delivered in bulky hard copy with an exorbitant fee attached.

First Amendment groups, journalists and others say the state public records law is archaic, and they are pushing for revisions. A legislative committee reviewing the law expects to decide within months whether to recommend changes to the 40-year-old statute.

"The Massachusetts public records law is literally stuck in a time warp," said Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, in testifying at a recent legislative hearing before the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee.

Proponents of revising the law say it would not need to be fundamentally changed and any current distinctions between public and confidential records would remain intact, as well as any exemptions.

At the hearing, representatives of The Associated Press and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association expressed support for a bill that would cap the fees for copies of public records at the amount it costs the state agency to produce them. It also would allow individuals or groups to be reimbursed legal costs if their public records request is initially denied then later accepted and the records released by court order.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Massachusetts Common Cause, said 41 other states reimburse attorney fees for successful public records appeals.

"We are way out of step when it comes to that provision," said Wilmot, adding that the prospect of making reimbursement could prod agencies to be more cooperative on the front end.

Other proposed changes include requirements that all state agencies designate public records officers and produce computerized records, whenever possible.

Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees government records and handles appeals when requests are denied, said he agrees the public is entitled to unencumbered access to public records, and he acknowledged that many agencies have a "bad record" when it comes to responding to requests.

"They stonewall, they delay, they don't want to give up anything," Galvin said, adding that the intransigence often stems from fear that they will get in trouble with higher-ups if they release any information.

But any changes to the law should not add to the burden of an already strained staff and resources, he said.

Galvin said the demands on agencies have increased in recent years as a growing number of private individuals and media outlets submit requests. He said open-ended requests are particularly time-consuming and hard for staff to fill.

"Usually what the supervisor tries to do is speak to the requester and say, `What are you really looking for? Can we narrow it down?"' he said in an interview.

Proponents say revising the law could go a long way toward making the process simpler for everyone and affordable. As it is now, information is kept in the dark when it should be available to the public, Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the newspaper publishers group, said.

He cites the case of a blogger seeking records of parking tickets in the city of Somerville who was told it would cost him $200,000 for the city to fill his request.

"The fees are all over the place and there is no consistency," Ambrogi said.

This program aired on October 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.