You might think a state like Massachusetts could take a victory lap during Sunshine Week—an annual, national celebration of open government and public access to information, which this year runs March 15–21. After all, the Bay State helped invent the very idea of open government. Feisty Massachusetts colonists and their broadsheets about tyrannical acts of the British Crown helped spark the American independence movement and forged the early notion that an informed citizenry would form an essential element of the new democracy.
But somehow over the last 250 years or so, Massachusetts lost its way. Today, Sunshine Week shines an embarrassing light on the Commonwealth’s broken public records law.
Massachusetts actually now ranks among the worst in the nation when it comes to government transparency. The Center for Public Integrity gave Massachusetts an “F” in its most recent 50-state survey of public access to information.
Unfortunately, this should come as no surprise. Massachusetts lawmakers have not updated our public records law for more than 40 years.
Lack of access to government information, and the undemocratic atmosphere it creates, plays across all areas of government and deeply affects our communities. Examples from recent headlines include the secrecy around large-impact projects such as Boston’s 2024 Olympic bid, the City of Boston ending the quarterly reporting of public employee pay rates, and the State Police refusing to share information about officers suspected of drunken driving.
Ironically, this lack of government transparency is a rare aspect of our government operations that’s not a secret at all. Massachusetts government agencies have developed a shameless culture of denying access to public information, and they face few consequences for doing so.
We have to stop this slide into secrecy. Fortunately, Northampton state Rep. Peter Kocot and Winchester state Sen. Jason Lewis have introduced solid new legislation that contains these essential building blocks.
First, and foremost, Massachusetts should join the overwhelming majority of states (46 of them, plus the federal government) that have evened the scales of justice by giving courts the power to award attorney fees when public agencies withhold public information from—horrors!—the public. The prospect of agencies having to pay cash money for their obstruction is a proven incentive to obey the law in the first place.
Second, there’s no reason ordinary people should have to pay excessive fees for freedom of information requests, including outdated per-page fees for printing and copying, now that public agencies can provide information in electronic form. We should also do away with the cynical practice of deploying lawyers to censor information that may embarrass an agency, then charging megabucks for their time.
Finally, streamlining the public records system would save both time and money. Each state agency should assign a point person to respond to public records requests and keep a general index of the kinds of records the agency holds. This would enable people to make more tailored requests, and the point person would have the requisite know-how and experience to respond quickly and efficiently.
These simple improvements to modernize our state freedom of information law would save money and help to restore public trust in government.
Halfway through March, we can count on longer, warmer days ahead to pull us out of our winter gloom—but when it comes to shedding light on government, we have to work for it. Please ask Massachusetts state lawmakers to fix our broken public records law today. We need sunshine on what our government does, year-round.