Public-records reform bill passes Mass. House

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BOSTON – Ahead of the unanimous passage of what they said was the first Massachusetts public records overhaul in more than four decades on Wednesday, a key lawmaker in the House of Representatives said the measure would increase transparency without adding an unfunded mandate on cities and towns.

“As a former local official and someone who pays a lot of attention to municipal government, I don’t view anything in this bill as an unfunded mandate,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Any public agency, including cities and towns, have responsibilities inherent to provide public access to the documents of what they do.”

Nonetheless, House lawmakers rejected a move to add records of their own proceedings under the law. The proposed amendment from Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover) was turned back 122 to 34.

“On Beacon Hill, it’s easier to spot Elvis than it is to see the inner workings of lawmaking,” said Paul Craney, the executive director of the Mass Fiscal Alliance, a conservative watchdog group. The leaders of the House “refused to make their public record proposals available to the public up until today,” Craney said in a statement. “I’m not surprised 122 lawmakers then voted to exempt themselves from public scrutiny.”

Craney criticized the procedural move used by House Democrats to block the Lyons proposal. The state constitution broadly grants the House the power to govern itself.

House leaders cited an amendment to study the “constitutionality and practicality” of subjecting the Legislature, the governor’s office and the state courts to the public records law. Those branches of government are currently considered exempt. The study amendment was sponsored by another Republican, Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich.

The legislation (H 3858) requires municipalities and state agencies to designate a public records officer and sets specific procedures for appeals to the state’s supervisor of records or to a court. The measure passed the House 157-0 and moved to the Senate.

The measure won the endorsement of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which cited concerns with some elements while saying “on balance it’s a step in the right direction,” in an email about the measure.

Common Cause Massachusetts also supported passage, saying in an email it would push for “even stronger legislation with everything our state truly needs” in the Senate version.

The Senate won’t take up the legislation until 2016 as both chambers held their final formal sessions of the year on Wednesday.

The bill is a “mixed bag,” according to Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. He said smaller newspapers could be encouraged to demand production of records in court because the bill allows judges to award attorney’s fees.

“That’s certainly going to make smaller newspapers feel a little bit more comfortable with going to court,” Ambrogi said. Ambrogi said he is “concerned” about the period of time municipalities and state agencies would be given to produce records under the bill, while acknowledging that the current 10-day deadline “is ignored more often than it’s adhered to.”

Under the legislation, cities and towns would have 75 days to produce records and state agencies would have 60 days.