To: Chairmen Joan Lovely and Peter Kocot and members of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight
From: Deirdre Cummings, Legislative Director, MASSPIRG, 617-747-4319
RE: Testimony in support of improving access to public records, H.2772 and S.1676, An Act to Improve Access to Public Records
May 26, 2015
MASSPIRG is a 40 year old, non- profit, non- partisan, public interest organization working to protect consumers, encourage a fair and sustainable economy and foster a responsive, transparent and democratic government.
I am here today to urge you to support An Act to Improve Access to Public Records, H.2772 and S.1676, filed by Senator Jason Lewis (Winchester) and Representative Peter Kocot (Northampton), and pass it from your committee without delay.
Transparency in government is the cornerstone to a strong democracy. Government transparency checks corruption, promotes fiscal responsibility and efficiency, and allows for greater, more meaningful participation in our democratic system.
Poor transparency, on the other hand, corrodes democracy: When citizens are unable to access information about government practices or when that information is difficult to analyze and compare, government accountability is severely hampered.
Unfortunately, government transparency, specifically meaningful access to public records, through our public records laws is broken and must be fixed. Organizations, reporters, watchdogs, and regular citizens who wish to see public documents are frequently unable to do so, prevented by outright denials, excessive charges, records in useless formats, and long delays in which the requested records never materialize or do so in an untimely manner. The law hasn’t been substantially updated since 1973.
It is time to bring our public records law into the 21st century with the substantial reforms contained in H.2772 and S.1676. Those reforms include:
· The appointment of a public records officer in each agency who will be responsible for the prompt delivery of all requests, bringing Massachusetts in line with best practices to ensure that citizens know who to contact with requests.
· A requirement that electronic records be provided electronically, in a searchable format. Or they could be posted online, reducing the work and cost required to print or fulfill individual requests while making the records far more accessible and useful.
· The prohibition of excessive fees by requiring records be affordable, with fees that reflect actual costs and don’t inhibit access.
· Improved compliance. Currently there is no practical method to ensure compliance with the law. Enforcement falls to private citizens or organizations suing to get the information they need. This requires significant effort and expense and is too much to ask of the public. The bills increase compliance by allowing courts to award attorneys’ fees to wronged requestors, putting Massachusetts in line with the 46 other states which already do so.
These bills will ensure that public records are actually public and will modernize a critical piece of our democracy.
I hope you will pass a strong public records bill from your committee quickly.
Legislative Director, MASSPIRG
Deirdre runs MASSPIRG’s public health, consumer protection and tax and budget programs. Deirdre has led campaigns to improve public records law and require all state spending to be transparent and available on an easy-to-use website, close $400 million in corporate tax loopholes, protect the state’s retail sales laws to reduce overcharges and preserve price disclosures, reduce costs of health insurance and prescription drugs, and more. Deirdre also oversees a Consumer Action Center in Weymouth, Mass., which has mediated 17,000 complaints and returned $4 million to Massachusetts consumers since 1989. Deirdre currently resides in Maynard, Mass., with her family. Over the years she has visited all but one of the state's 351 towns — Gosnold.