Alliance Urges Passage of Massachusetts Public Records Modernization Bill

BOSTON — United under the banner of the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Alliance (MassFOIA), open-government groups today urge the state legislature to quickly pass recently filed legislation intending to modernize and rationalize the Massachusetts public records law. Their call to action coincides with a national celebration of open government known as Sunshine Week, from March 15-21.

swlogo2-300x176The state public records law is supposed to grant the public the right to access information about government operations from the executive branch and municipalities, subject to certain exemptions, such as to protect personal privacy. MassFOIA contends that the law is weak and needs updating for the digital age, having not been substantially amended since 1973.

Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton) and Sen. Jason M. Lewis (D-Winchester) filed bills in both the House (HB 2772) and Senate (SD 1235) that aim to reform the public records law by eliminating technological and administrative barriers to its enforcement. Key provisions would update the law to reflect advances in technology, require state agencies to have a “point person” to handle records requests, rationalize fees for obtaining public records by having them reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information.

“Our public records law is broken,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, a founding member of MassFOIA. “Journalists, concerned citizens and others with a need to know how our government is working often can’t get the information they have a right to, because of excessive fees, long delays, or obstruction of one kind or another. The public records law hasn’t been substantially updated since 1973–now it’s time to bring it into the 21st century.”

Other groups included in the alliance are:

According to MassFOIA, the proposed legislation aims to improve access to information that the law already defines as a public record. It would not alter the scope of the public records law or make any changes to existing exemptions, which include exemptions for personal privacy, criminal investigations, personnel records, trade secrets, and many other categories. Rather it would modernize outmoded language in the law and strengthen procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Promote access to records in electronic form.
  • Direct agencies to assign a “records access officer” to streamline responses to public records requests.
  • Lower costs for requesters and limit charges for redacting documents to withhold information.
  • Require attorneys’ fees when access to public records is wrongly denied, creating an incentive for agencies to obey the law.

“Let’s take the opportunity this Sunshine Week to discuss the state’s public records law and make meaningful, yet common sense improvements,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “As winter-weary residents of Massachusetts, we’re all looking forward to more warmth and sunshine. When it comes to the public’s right to know, however, let’s make sure sunlight shines on our government all year round.”

“The outmoded public records law is repeatedly thwarting the news media in their efforts to cover state and local government activities,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “The public has a right to know what their government officials are doing, but outrageous fee demands and lack of accountability frequently obstruct that right.”

“The point is to fix the law so it works the way it’s supposed to,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Allowing courts to award attorneys’ fees is a common way to create an incentive for people to abide by the law and to provide a remedy when rights are violated. It’s shocking that 46 states have this kind of provision–as does the federal FOIA law–and Massachusetts doesn’t. As the cradle of liberty, Massachusetts should lead the way, not lag behind the rest of the country.”


Gavi Wolfe, Legislative Counsel
American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
(617) 482-3170 x340;

Robert J. Ambrogi, Executive Director
Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association
(978) 546-3400;

Justin Silverman, Executive Director
New England First Amendment Coalition
(774) 244-2365;

Pam Wilmot, Executive Director
Common Cause Massachusetts
(617) 962-0034;

Public records allow scrutiny

Part 4 of The Republican’s Sunshine Week series: Public records allow scrutiny:

“It happens all the time.

“The tenants complain about conditions in their apartment, a city inspection follows, and a notice of violations is mailed to the property owner demanding compliance.

“Landlord Anthony Ping Zuo, of the affluent suburb of Weston, however, found himself under the added scrutiny of The Republican – triggered by a wide-open paper trail that would link Zuo to hundreds of code violations in buildings across the region, and beyond.”

Read the rest of the story.

Political candidates have spotty voting records

This was the front-page article on Sunday’s Cape Cod Times: Political candidates have spotty voting records:

“Raymond Hall may ask Dennis residents to do something May 13 that he rarely does — vote.

“Hall is one of three people who have taken out nomination papers to run for selectman. A review of state election records indicate that the last and only Dennis election Hall voted in was in 2004, and he has never checked in to a town meeting, according to records. He’s voted a total of six times since 2000.”

Here is a PDF of Sunday’s front page.cctA01031698.pdf

Governor says e-mails off-limits

From the Cape Cod Times: Governor says e-mails off-limits:

Gov. Deval Patrick holds the most conspicuous job in state government, but his records are above public inspection.

While the state’s Public Records Law does not expressly exempt the governor’s papers from outside scrutiny, as it does those of the Legislature or the judiciary, recent chief executives have taken solace in a 1997 Supreme Judicial Court decision saying that because the executive branch is not expressly mentioned in the state’s Public Records Law, it should be exempt from it.

Read the full story. See this issue’s front page in PDF format.

Let the sunshine in

From yesterday’s Cape Cod Times: Let the sunshine in:

“This is the beginning of Sunshine Week. We’re not talking weather. We’re referring to the state and federal climate related to open government. In both cases, it’s mighty chilly.

“In Massachusetts, the cradle of democracy, the current open meeting law is one of the most restrictive in the nation. It gives boards of selectmen and other governing bodies too many excuses to discuss important public policy issues in executive session.”

Read the rest.

Towns develop online presence

The third in The Republican’s Sunshine Week series: Towns develop online presence.

“Brimfield residents can learn plenty about their town’s volunteer fire department by going online to, but they won’t find a Web site to keep them up to date on how their town government operates.

“That could change soon. The Board of Selectmen is moving, cautiously, toward getting a town government Web site started.”

Read the full story.

Investigation reveals obstacles to getting info

From today’s Metrowest Daily News: Investigation reveals obstacles to getting information:

“The IRS has arguably the most famous and feared deadline in the United States.

“But when it comes to deadlines for Freedom of Information Act requests, the tax agency isn’t nearly so demanding of itself.

“‘I apologize for any inconvenience my delay may cause,’ wrote the tax agency, as it explained why it would blow the 20-day deadline on a GateHouse FOIA letter for logs of its public records requests. And if you don’t like it: ‘You may file suit.'”

Read the full story.

Web site established to educate voters

From The Republican today: Web site established to educate voters:

“It’s not easy being an open book.

“But that’s exactly what organizers and volunteers with Project Vote Smart intend to do with information about the nation’s elected officials and office seekers. From biographies to issue stances, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization combines it all in one vast database for free and on the Web.”

Read the full story.