Secretary Galvin files public records ballot question

Supporters hope to vote sometime after the August recess

Photo: Thinkstock

BOSTON (AP) — State Secretary William Galvin has filed a ballot question aimed at strengthening Massachusetts’ public records law by guaranteeing the right to obtain records within a reasonable time and at a reasonable fee.

It also would give Galvin’s office more power to investigate delays in providing public records and to enforce the law. The question also would cap the cost of copying public documents at 15 cents for each black-and-white page and 25 cents for each color copy.

Galvin’s proposal is the latest in a string of efforts to overhaul and toughen the public records law.

Gov. Charlie Baker last week ordered his administration to take steps to make public records easier to obtain, noting Massachusetts had received failing grades for government transparency.

The new policy mirrors many — but not all — of the provisions in a separate public records bill recently approved by a legislative committee. That bill has yet to come before the full Legislature for a vote.

The bill, which would also apply to cities and towns, received a favorable report this month from the 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.

Media and government watchdog groups have long complained that the state’s public records law is outdated and cumbersome, often forcing document seekers to endure long waits and exorbitant costs.

Galvin’s question would appear on the November 2016 ballot unless it’s approved by the Legislature first. Supporters also would need to gather the signatures of at least 64,750 registered voters to guarantee a spot on the ballot.

Galvin said in a press release that he filed the proposal in part because the state’s public records law “has often been diluted by cumbersome enforcement procedures.”

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.

Galvin’s proposal also sets cost limits on how much state and local police and fire departments can charge for incident reports, motor vehicle accident reports and fire insurance reports.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press

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