House of hypocrisy when it comes to public records

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In an overwhelmingly partisan vote, the Massachusetts House of Representatives last week decided it was  exceptional.

On the very last legislative day before the holiday recess, the House finally took up long-promised legislation to clarify and simplify access to state government records. The legislation (H 3858) requires municipalities and state agencies to designate a public records officer to make government documents available to the public upon request and requires agencies to make electronic documents available in electronic form and post common public records online. The American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, and the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance (an organization on whose board I sit) support the measure, which passed the House 157-0.

But, remarkably, our representatives exempted themselves from any and all of the proposed law’s requirements.

In this regard, Massachusetts is indeed exceptional: It is the only state that exempts the legislature, the governor, and the judiciary from public records laws. Reason enough for the Sunlight Foundation,  a national nonpartisan organization which grades all 50 states on government accountability, to give Massachusetts an “F” for transparency in state government. Massachusetts is one of only four states to receive a failing grade (Alabama, Kentucky, and Nebraska are the other three).

The story of the Public Records Reform legislation is about as transparent as the brick facade of the State House.  Legislative committees, working behind closed doors with lobbyists from the Massachusetts Municipal Association and other interested parties, had indicated for months that the House would offer a bill. But the bill’s 18 pages were released to the public mere hours before the session began.

Releasing the legislative language to the world beyond Beacon Hill within a reasonable time should have been a priority, but legislative leaders apparently value expediency over openness.

Believing that a law to improve the way state agencies and municipalities interact with the public would likewise improve the relationship between citizens and the legislature, Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover) filed an amendment to make law applicable to the state legislature.

But to figure out how a representative stands on Lyons’ amendment, you need an advanced degree in legislative gamesmanship. House leadership, appalled at the idea that they too might be subjected to citizen scrutiny, wrangled a way for the membership to hide their votes behind House procedure.

I’ll explain. Lyons’ amendment was ruled out of order, ostensibly because its premise was contained in another amendment, offered by Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich). Hill’s amendment was less pointed. The Lyons amendment thus failed to pass, with votes falling right down party lines: 122 Democrats voted against it, and the 34 Republicans voted for it. (Inexplicably, Rep. Paul Heroux (D-Attleboro) voted present.) And thus died Jim Lyons’ good idea died with it.

Democrats are calling the roll call on the Lyons amendment a procedural vote, implying they were voting on rules rather than on substantive issues. This hedge is a cynical strategy which assumes voters won’t follow the convoluted trail of Rep. Lyon’s good idea.

Let’s hope that when the state Senate takes up the matter in 2016, it rejects the hypocrisy of the House and removes the legislative exemption. Such exceptional hypocrisy won’t play well with the voters next fall.


Wendy Darwin Wakeman is resident of North Andover and board member of Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. 

This essay has been amended to correct the course of events surrounding the Lyons’ amendment.