Senate Panel Advances Bill To Overhaul Public Records Laws

Government watchdog groups praised a bill outlined by Massachusetts Senate leaders Thursday that seeks to modernize public records rules that critics have labeled among the most outdated and cumbersome in the nation.

The measure, advanced by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, would establish new timetables for compliance by state agencies and municipalities with public records requests and reimburse legal fees to people who fight and successfully overturn a decision to deny a records request.

The full Senate scheduled a vote on the measure for next week. The House approved a similar version last fall that's designed to replace an existing law that was written more than four decades ago.

"Back in 1973, we didn't even have such a thing as electronic records, and today, of course, almost all the records that are produced are electronic," said Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who sponsored the bill.

A coalition of organizations called the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance has pressed lawmakers to overhaul the law, citing examples of records seekers enduring long delays and exorbitant costs for accessing documents that should be open to public inspection.

Both the House and Senate bills agree on provisions that would require state agencies to provide records in electronic formats when possible and limit fees charged for hard copies and staff time devoted to preparing material.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said the Senate version goes further than the House by requiring that courts, in most cases, award attorney fees to residents who successfully challenge the denial of a public records request; the House bill would allow for reimbursement of legal fees but does not mandate it.

The Senate bill also would impose punitive damages of up to $5,000 against agencies that flout the rules.

"It puts teeth in the law," Wilmot said.

The House version calls on state agencies and municipalities to comply with records requests within 10 business days and if that deadline can't be met, sets up a process that would allow agencies up to 60 days and municipalities up to 75 days to fully comply.

The Senate would establish an initial 15-day window for compliance and a 30-day deadline for more complex requests. Agencies could petition for another 30-day extension by showing "good cause" for the delay.

"This bill would significantly enhance the ability of citizens and journalists to obtain records on a timely basis at a reasonable cost and to enforce their rights when they are wrongfully denied access to public records," said Robert Ambroglio, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

The Senate, like the House, would retain the Legislature's built-in exemption from the public records law, although Democratic leaders indicated a willingness to review the exemption in future years.

The Senate bill creates a new exemption for cybersecurity, which lawmakers said could include documents that contain personal identifying information.

This article was originally published on January 28, 2016.



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