BOSTON (AP) — Some rays of sunshine may be filtering through a culture of secrecy that often permeates the Massachusetts Statehouse.
The Legislature appears on track to reform the state’s outdated and cumbersome public records law and, in a break from typical routine, a conference committee of House and Senate members writing a final version of the bill has opted to negotiate in full public view.
Democratic Sen. President Stan Rosenberg and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker also agreed — the latter in part — to a request from The Associated Press to release a week’s worth of emails and daily schedules despite stating their own exemptions from the records law.
Yet the drive toward greater openness in state government is not without speed bumps.
Final passage of the bill would not remove legislative immunity, which lawmakers in Massachusetts and other states have insisted is necessary to, among other things, protect the privacy of correspondence with constituents.
The Legislature also remains exempt from portions of the state’s open meeting laws. While all sessions in which votes are taken are open (formal sessions are also televised and webcast), other significant gatherings of lawmakers are not. These include most conference committees and party caucuses held behind closed doors.
Last month, the AP sent requests to legislative leaders and the governor in each U.S. state seeking copies of their daily schedules and emails from their government accounts for the week of Feb. 1-7. The response in Massachusetts was mixed.
Through a House lawyer, Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo and GOP House leader Brad Jones denied the request, citing the Legislature’s public records exemption.
Senate Counsel Jennifer Grace Miller also noted the materials sought were excluded from the law, but said Rosenberg had agreed to share his schedules and emails from the week, “in the spirit of openness and transparency.”
The emails offer a glimpse into a typical week for the Senate leader. They include policy briefs and news articles forwarded by staff, inquiries from constituents and appeals for Rosenberg’s backing on various issues.
There were pleas from supporters of Baker’s push to expand charter schools, along with a smaller number opposing the measure that could go before voters this fall. In one interesting exchange, Rosenberg, who publicly has been cool to charter schools, responded to a person who criticized him for cancelling a scheduled meeting on the subject in Amherst.
Rosenberg pointedly explained that he asked for a postponement after learning that charter school opponents organizing the meeting might ask proponents to leave the event. That would not be a “constructive situation,” he wrote.
Baker’s office provided the same schedules distributed daily to reporters that list his public events, along with hundreds of pages of email correspondence from his official state account. Other emails were withheld, “consistent with the public records laws,” his office said.
The emails included a lengthy chain of messages from the state’s emergency management director and other officials discussing two winter storms threatening the state. Another message showed officials hastily arranging a conference call to discuss a case involving the state’s child welfare agency. In another, aides evaluate news coverage of Baker’s decision to endorse New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie prior to the New Hampshire presidential primary.
The public records law was last updated in 1973 and is “widely regarded as one of the weakest if not the weakest in the nation,” according to Pam Wilmot, president of Massachusetts Common Cause.
Wilmot and other advocates for greater transparency have long complained of public records requests being met with demands for exorbitant fees and lengthy waits for the documents — when not denied outright.
Versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate would establish new timetables for compliance with public records requests and limit fees charged for producing the material. And in what some backers view as the most critical change, it would encourage compliance by reimbursing legal fees to people who successfully challenge through the courts the denial of a public records request.
Only two other states, South Dakota and Wyoming, have no mechanism for recovery of legal fees, according to Common Cause.
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