BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker ordered his administration to take steps Thursday to make public records easier and less expensive to obtain, noting that Massachusetts had received failing grades in the past for government transparency.
The new policy mirrors many — but not all — of the provisions in a public records bill recently approved by a legislative committee but not yet put to a vote.
“While diligent efforts are made every day across the Executive Branch to respond to a large number of public records requests, we can improve our approach as to reduce delays and costs that burden accessibility,” Baker wrote in a memo to his Cabinet.
Media and government watchdog groups have long complained that the state’s four-decades-old public records law is outdated and cumbersome, often forcing document seekers to endure long waits and exorbitant costs for obtaining the materials — assuming they’re made available at all.
Baker’s order requires agencies to designate a single records access officer responsible for tracking the progress of public records requests. Whenever possible, the records must be delivered in searchable electronic form and at a reasonable cost.
No charge would be applied for simpler, straightforward requests. In cases involving more complex searches, the first four hours of work by an agency would be free, but the agency could charge up to $25 per hour for all subsequent work. For hard copies of documents, 10 cents would be charged for each black and white sheet and 50 cents for color.
Within five days of a request, the records officer must notify the person who made the request if it’s going to take more than 10 days or cost more than $10 to complete. In cases where entire databases of information are being sought, agencies must provide a written explanation if compliance will take more than eight weeks.
“It’s just an embarrassment that we are ranked near the bottom in every aspect of open government in all 50 states,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, in praising Baker for taking steps to address the issue.
But Wilmot noted that Baker’s order is limited to agencies under the governor’s direct control and does not include a key provision in the pending legislation that would allow people who are denied access to public records to recoup legal fees if they successfully challenge the denial in court.
A Baker spokesman said the governor could not order such a policy without legislative approval.
The bill, which would also apply to cities and towns, received a favorable report this month from the Legislature’s State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee but hit a snag when municipal officials raised concerns over potential administrative costs. Supporters are hoping for a vote sometime after the August recess.
The bill would require compliance with public records requests within 15 days in the absence of “exceptional circumstances.”
In his memo, the governor instructed agencies to strike a balance when responding and spend no more than eight hours a week on any single request.
“While we should work to produce documents promptly, we cannot exhaust unreasonably valuable personnel time for public records production, including required redaction of documents to prevent the disclosure of confidential, privileged or personal information, at the expense of other important state work,” he wrote.
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