Getting Answers: advocates call for commission to oversee public records

The Massachusetts State House in Boston
The Massachusetts State House in Boston(MGN-online / Image: Hsin Ju HSU / Wikipedia / CC BY SA 3.0)
Updated: Nov. 17, 2022 at 5:55 PM EST
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(WGGB/WSHM) - Western Mass News continues to get answers on the state’s public information law, which experts said is one of the least transparent in the nation. Advocates and some lawmakers are proposing changes to make it easier for people in Massachusetts to get information about their government.

“The ultimate problem with the Massachusetts public records law is that there is no enforcement mechanism that most people can take advantage of,” said Jeff Pyle, partner at Prince, Lobel, Tye

Pyle, a First Amendment attorney, said there’s no system to force the hand of local governments and state agencies that refuse to hand over public records to those who request them. The other glaring issue is that Massachusetts is one of the only states where the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government are exempt from the public records law. That means documents considered public in almost all other states can be off limits in the Commonwealth.

“It speaks to the resistance that’s in the legislature and the judiciary to open things up. They’re fiefdoms, bureaucracies, and they like to be that way and it creates a problem,” said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.

“That’s why we need a state administrative agency that can provide a reasonable likelihood of getting transparency on a day-to-day basis,” Pyle added.

That’s exactly what exists in Connecticut. In 1975, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and amid a push for more governmental transparency, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission was founded. Today, it remains one of just three in the country.

“We try to ensure the greatest amount of public access to government records and government meetings in the state of Connecticut to all citizens,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission

Murphy sits on the nine-person commission, which is an independent body that settles disputes over whether records should be released.

“It’s tricky for a citizen to have to go to government to ask to get government information,” Murphy noted.

A citizen can file a complaint with the commission, alleging they were denied access to public documents or to an open meeting. The commission will first attempt mediation, but if that fails, Murphy explained, “the complaining party would come into this room and the agency that’s involved, who denied access to records or denied access to a meeting, would come here and have an opportunity to explain why the law justifies withholding or kicking someone out of a meeting.”

The commission votes and makes a formal, enforceable ruling. State Representative Antonio Cabral wants to bring something similar to Massachusetts with a bill he plans to refile next legislative session.

“One that would create actually a commission to oversee all public records, not only the state public records, but all municipalities,” Cabral said.

Cabral added that the five member commission would have the authority to summon witnesses, require agencies to produce records, and enforce final decisions.

“It would create additional abilities around enforcement to create some uniformity around what is a public record and how it needs to be maintained, how can it be provided, how can the public have access to that,” Cabral said.

However, Cabral said it will take time, most likely several sessions to debate and pass such a bill. In Connecticut, Murphy said the only downside of the commission is that the added process takes time and sometimes results in a backlog.

“We do have a one-year time limit though, so not to say that that’s great that we might take a year, but we have to year and decide every matter that comes before us within one year,” Murphy noted.

Despite this, she said the Freedom of Information Commission’s work ensures governmental transparency and has even been studied by emerging democracies.

“We’ve been able to go to Mexico and China and had visitors here from Liberia, other countries in Africa, and it’s really quite something to think that our little commission has had that kind of an impact worldwide,” Murphy said.