By: Tom Duggan – January 8, 2013
What do you call it when the legislature passes a law but they purposely don’t impose any penalties for violating that law? Well if you live in Massachusetts you would call it the Public Records law, or MGL Chapter 66.
Now Sate Representative Diana DiZoglio says the first piece of legislation she is filing, is a bill that will correct the flaw in the state’s public records law so that penalties will be imposed on those who refuse to comply with the state’s version of the Freedom of Information Act.
“We have to hold public officials accountable for turning over public documents,” DiZoglio told The Valley Patriot in an exclusive interview.
“If citizens are not able to gain access to public documents, we cannot claim that there is transparency in government. If we don’t have some kind of penalty, there is no enforcement and people are not going to comply.”
DiZoglio said she is fulfilling promises she made to her constituents during the campaign and doesn’t seem deterred by the legislature’s lack of interest in putting teeth in the public records law.
“This is what I ran on, public accountability, transparency in government; this definitely has to be done.”
Both Republican and Democrat legislators in The Valley say they agree with DiZoglio and support penalties for those who refuse to turn over public records in the ten day time period called for in Chapter 66.
Senators Kathleen O’Connor Ives (D) Newburyport says she will also file a bill in the Senate to add penalties to the public records law. So far Senator Bruce Tarr (R) Newbury, Representatives Jim Lyons (R) Andover, Linda Dean Campbell (D) Methuen, Brad Hill (R) Newbury and Brad Jones (R) Reading, have all said that adding teeth to the law needs to be done and committed to the Valley Patriot that they will support penalties in the law.
This is good news for the taxpayers of Massachusetts and the news media.
If you are a regular reader of The Valley Patriot you are probably familiar with our nearly year-long battle to get documents showing payments made by the City of Lawrence to the DiAdamo Law firm. A Law Firm which does legal work on behalf of the city and is paid for with the taxpayers’ money.
Under Mass General Law Chapter 66 public entities such as municipalities must turn over public documents within ten days of any citizen’s request.
The Valley Patriot filed out our initial request for public documents back on February 22, 2012. It is now January 2013. Despite the fact that the law mandates public records be turned over within ten days, The Valley Patriot is still waiting because there is no penalty for those who refuse to comply with the law.
We have letters from the Secretary of State’s Office (Dated September of 2012) demanding Mayor Lantigua turn over the documents. He refused. We have an order from Essex Superior Court Judge Tom Murtagh (Dated October, 2012) ordering Lawrence to “produce the documents.”
Mayor Lantigua slapped him and the court in the fact and outright refused.
Judge Murtagh even held the city in contempt of court for refusing to comply with his order.
Yet, as of the day this newspaper went to print (January 8th) The City of Lawrence continues to conceal the amount of your tax money that was spent on outside legal bills with the DiAdamo Law Firm.
My hope is that Representatives DiZoglio uses the Valley Patriot’s struggle for public information as a template for the law she is going to file.
In order for any new legislation to achieve forcing public officials to turn over public records it must include the following:
• A daily fine imposed personally upon the keeper of records and/or the person specifically responsible for not turning over public records within the mandatory ten day time limit called for in Chapter 66.
• Financial reimbursement for all expenses incurred by those who request public records and are forced to seek a remedy in court or through some other government agency.
• Criminal penalties for anyone who is a repeat offender in failing to turn over public records.
• Language in the law that mandates the Secretary of State’s Office enforce penalties added to Chapter 66 to ensure that the law is not ignored by the Secretary of State.
• A daily fine imposed on the Secretary of State’s Office for failing to enforce the law within ten days of being notified of a public records violation.
• Authority granted to Superior Court Judges to enforce Chapter 66 with the authority to impose additional fines and penalties when violations of the law become a pattern.
Enforcing the state’s public records law is a no brainer to anyone who cares about public access and transparency in government. Enacting these types of enforcement measures will ensure that scofflaws who try to conceal public records to hide their illegal activity will be held accountable.
The Valley Patriot will be watching this debate very carefully. We will be meticulously watching to see which legislators make excuses to oppose adding penalties to MGL, Chapter 66.