Last month the Massachusetts Legislature delayed a scheduled vote on a public records reform bill after getting pressure from the very politicians who will have to pay the price for concealing such public documents.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) initially opposed the public records reform bill, but after realizing there was too much momentum in favor of the bill, they decided to try and water it down instead. That required a delay, which they managed to get, and it now seems like they are going to get their way.
Initially, the bill I wrote, (S1700, sponsored by Senator Ives and Rep. DiZoglio) was to make sure there was a personal fine handed out to public officials who break the law. The fine was $50 per day for every day that a public official refuses to comply with MGL Ch. 66.
The reason public officials must be personally fined is because some officials have no problem breaking the law when the penalty is so low that it’s of no consequence. Former Lawrence Mayor Willie Lantigua blatantly told me we would never get the documents we were seeking back in 2012, adding that “the money doesn’t come out of my pocket, so I don’t care.”
After making it through several subcommittees in the house and senate, and after several revisions, Senate Bill S1700 became House Bill 3665. But, the sub-committee Chairman, Peter Kocot, watered down the bill by taking out the provision that would have fined public officials personally. Now they are going to make the fines payable by the cities and towns, which means YOU the taxpayers will pay for their refusal to turn over your records.
And they kept the fine at $50 a day, which doesn’t even cover the cost of paperclips in city hall in Lawrence. So, if the legislature thinks that they can get away with pretending there’s a consequence for breaking the public records law under the new wording they are not going to get away with it without a fight.
[State House: (617) 722-2000 ]
MGL Ch. 66 was written more than 40 years ago with no penalty for the insider elites who snub their noses at the taxpayers and simply refuse to comply with the law.
Now, in 2015, it seems that, on the wave of demand for public records reform, the legislature is trying to do the same thing by making it LOOK like they are adding penalties to the law, so they can all celebrate and pretend they accomplished something.
The fact is, this bill has wide support for penalizing the public officials who willingly or neglectfully violate the public records law. The only people who are opposing it, or even trying to water down it’s effectiveness are the very people who will be paying those fines.
You see, the MMA is an organization that is paid for with YOUR tax dollars, and its members are made up of mayors, town managers and city attorneys who just happen to be the very people mandated to turn over public records.
In Lawrence, (whose city budget is 80% paid for by the state taxpayers) they spent $10,395 this year to have the city be a member of the MMA and have a representative in the organization.
And then the MMA took all of that money from each city and town (multiply that $10,395 by 351 cities and towns) and used it to lobby the legislature to water down a public records bill, that will fine THEIR MEMBERS for refusing to comply with turning over public documents.
What’s worse, you have this organization with elected and appointed officials sitting as its members, who can act in secret, to kill legislation all the while maintaining at the local level that they are for transparency in government and are good stewards of the public’s trust.
Take for example, Larry Murphy. Murphy is an MMA representative from the Town of Andover. He is also the acting town manager and as such sent an email to state senators and state representatives on Beacon Hill using a Town of Andover email server and identifying himself as the acting town manager in his email, as an underhanded attempt to kill a public records reform bill.
It is outrageous that this state has gone more than 40 years with only the appearance of a public records law, but even more outrageous is that in the year 2015 we have the very law breakers who conceal public records, taking your tax money and using it against you to continue concealing your public records.