Joint Committee Supports Reforming State Public Records Law, Add Penalties for Officials Who Refuse to Release Public Records
March 16, 2014
The days of public officials refusing to comply with the state’s public records law are almost over.
So says State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives (D), Newburyport who told the Valley Patriot on Wednesday that a Massachusetts joint House and Senate Committee on Public Administration has given a favorable recommendation to House Bill H2846, an “Act to Improve Access to Public Records.”
Representative Peter V. Kocot is the House Chairman and Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly is the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight which will send the bill to the House of Representative for a vote. If passed it will then go to the State Senate for a vote and then to the governor’s desk to be signed.
H2846 is a bill to revamp the state’s defective public records law, which requires state and municipal officials to turn over public records within ten days upon request by members of the public. The current law has no penalties for public officials who either fail to comply or refuse to comply with such requests.
H2846 includes reforms filed by State Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives (D), Newburyport, on behalf of her constituent, Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan of North Andover. Duggan drafted language to add penalties to the state law as well as reimbursement for legal fees if the public has to seek court action to force public officials to comply with the law.
“I have made it one of my top priorities as a State Senator to make government more accountable and transparent across the board. This bill will strengthen public access to public records and that can only be a good thing. I will continue to work toward the passage of this bill and to advocate for the interests of the Merrimack Valley,” Senator Ives said.
LANTIGUA’S LAW BREAKING LEADS TO CHANGES IN PUBLIC RECORDS LAW
Duggan has begged public officials both privately and publicly over the last two years to change the law to be “more than just a suggestion” after he requested documents from then Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua in 2012.
Lantigua refused to turn over public documents showing how much money two politically connected attorneys (William and Carmine DiAdamo) made from taxpayers during his term in office. Lantigua not only violated the state’s public records law but violated orders from Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office as well as two orders from two different superior court judges.
Despite a letter from Lawrence City Attorney Charles Boddy saying that the document The Valley Patriot requested were indeed public records and that the cost would only be $61.81, the The Valley Patriot has spent more than $15,000 in legal bills to try and force the city of Lawrence to comply with the state law.
Essex County Superior Court Judge Robert Cornetta (photo: Tom Duggan)
Essex County Superior Court Judge Robert Cornetta told Duggan at two subsequent court hearings on the matter that because the state law has no provision for enforcement and no penalty for those who violate it, there was little he could do by way of sanctions against the city or the mayor.
Lantigua hired a high priced law firm out of Boston, Foley and Hoag spending more than $32,000 to fight Duggan’s $61 public records request.
Senator O’Connor Ives filed Senate Bill 1520, “An Act Relative to Obtaining Information” as one of her first official pieces of legislation filed at the State House. Senator Ives’ bill sought to put teeth in Chapter 66 Section 10 of the Massachusetts General Law saying on Duggan’s radio program on 980WCAP that she agreed with the Valley Patriot and the public records law needed to be changed. Senator Ives’ bill has now been incorporated into H2846 which would implement a $100 a day fine for any custodian of public records who fails or refuses to comply with a public records request within ten days.
The bill would also call reimbursement of legal fees for members of the public who are forced to take legal action against public officials who fail or refuse to comply with public records requests.
“This is a great day for a free press in Massachusetts,” Duggan said after learning that Senator Ives Bill will get a hearing and a vote in both houses of the legislature.
“What we saw with Mayor Lantigua was a blatant disregard for the law and just how far corrupt officials will go to conceal public information that may be embarrassing or expose the kind of corruption that brings public scrutiny to their office. Senator Ives deserves a lot of credit on this. She and other legislators familiar with our battle for public records in Lawrence are actually doing something about it in an environment on Beacon Hill that does not reward bucking the status-quo.”
“Members of the press are often forced to use attorneys to acquire information they should have access to by right,” Senator Ives said.
“It’s significant that provisions in [our] bill will be incorporated in ‘An Act to Improve Access to Public Records’, sponsored by Representative Peter Kocot, Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Administration.”
The bill will also make it easier to get electronic copies of public records, which cuts down on the cost to the public who request public documents and often are charged extraordinary fees for volumes of paper copies of the records they request.
Other changes to the state’s public records law include:
* A requirement that public officials must allow members of the public to physically inspect public records.
* Further defines “actual cost” taking into account the actual cost of materials used, an amount equal to the hourly salary of the lowest paid employee with the skill needed to complete the request, provided that no fee shall be charged unless at least 2 hours is needed to prepare the copy of the record.
* Fees for black and white photocopies or computer printouts can be no more than 5 cents per letter size and 7 cents per larger page. Every custodian shall inform the requester of the cost of preparing the copy. Permits the custodian to waive fees when it is in the public interest.
* Establishes that court proceedings under this section will take precedence on the docket over other civil cases.
* Directs every agency with the ability to do so, to provide public records at no charge through public internet access.
* Establishes a special legislative commission comprised of members of both the House and Senate to study the availability to the general public of information concerning the legislative operations of the general court.
“I think it’s great that this bill has been voted out of committee and my hope is that we can get it passed in both houses and singed into law by the Governor,” said State Representative Jim Lyons (R) Andover.
“I am going to do everything within my power to lobby my colleagues at the State House to see that this bill passes. This is a good bill. It protects the right of a free press to obtain information about what your government officials are doing with your money. It is long overdue. Open and transparent government helps every citizen in Massachusetts and I commend Senator Ives for taking the lead on this. But I also want to commend Tom Duggan, publisher of the Valley Patirot. You guys have made this a public issue and you have been relentless in getting the language drafted and harassing officials to support it. These are the kinds of things that make a big difference in our state.”
Lyons submitted a similar bill at the same time as Senator Ives at the request of The Valley Patriot but his bill was referred to a committee where it still languishes.
“I’m strongly in support of the public records bill that Sen. Donnelly & Rep. Kocot reported out of committee today,” State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D) Acton, told the Valley Patriot upon hearing the success of the bill. “It will improve transparency in local and state government, for the general public and the media, and increase accountability in government.”
State Representative Diana DiZoglio who has long supported the bill and filed her own legislation to reform the public records law said she was thrilled Senator Ives’ bill has been incorporated into the overall bill for public records reform.
“Government transparency is imperative if we as legislators are going to be able to make a positive difference in our communities and earn the public’s trust,” DiZoglio said vowing to lobby for the reform bill.
“This isn’t over yet,” Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan said. “We still need to lobby the House and Senate to pass the bill on the floor and then lobby the governor to sign the bill, but this is a great day for democracy and the ability of a free press to investigate public corruption. I just hope that our readers will flood their elected representatives and senators to vote favorably on H2846.”
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