A call for more open government
01/30/09Massachusetts public records are not always so public.
That seemed to be the consensus Friday among panelists who participated in a State House forum sponsored by Commonwealth Magazine on the state's Public Records law.
Exemptions riddle the statute, Alan Cote, the state's supervisor of public records, told the packed hearing room.
"Exemptions are listed alphabetically and we are running out of the alphabet," Cote said. "These exemptions are punching holes in the basic body of the law."
Journalists and the public alike find difficulty avoiding these exemptions, other panelists said.
Walter Robinson, a Northeastern University professor and former editor of The Boston Globe's Spotlight Team, said the law, which does not apply to Legislators or the Judiciary, is flawed even in regard to those agencies that fall under it.
"The law is weak to the point where people who are embarrassed have plenty of chances to flout the law," Robinson said.
A 2008 study conducted by the Better Government Association and sponsored by Alper Services ranked Massachusetts Public Record Law 20th in the nation. A 2007 study by the association gave Massachusetts a letter grade of "F" and a ranking of 43 out of the 50 states.
Friday's forum comes as Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, is introducing legislation that won't eliminate exemptions but will seek to toughen enforcement.
The proposed legislation would give the state supervisor of public records subpoena power, increase the possible fine for withholding records covered by the act from $20 to $500, and allow the courts to award legal fees to those who successfully challenge the state's efforts to withhold records they are seeking.
"We are in the first step of the process and are open to suggestions," Cabral said. "The issue is an open democratic process we all can participate in."
Cote warned that the labor and costs involved in supplying public records can pose a problem in hard economic times.
"More and more as physical constraints hit home government officials are doing more work and with limited amounts of money," Cote said. "Records have always been at the bottom of the list. We are moving as quickly as we can to real-time accessible records on-line.
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