20th-century problem, 21st century solution

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By Karla de Steuben

This month’s CommonWealth Magazine’s article about the Massachusetts Public Records Law (“Paper Tiger,” by Coleman Herman) confirms what many of us have believed for some time. The MPRL is often violated and not as effective as it should be. In addition, there are problems with the mechanism for enforcing it.

One solution to the issues raised by the CommonWealth magazine article would be to improve the enforcement mechanism, including adding penalties for violating the law and requiring public officials to receive training. Another solution is to get rid of “the middleman” and encourage or require public agencies and local governments to post public records online. If public records are posted online, the public can access them at any time for free without having to ask someone first.

For the past three years, I have been working with Common Cause Massachusetts on a project (the Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government) to encourage local cities and town to post their records online. Over 300 of the 351 communities now have websites. When we began the project in the fall of 2005, only 24 communities posted what we call the “key governance” records: the agenda and minutes of the governing body, the bylaws, the budget, and, if applicable, the town meeting warrant and town meeting results. By March 2008, over ninety communities had at least the key governance records online. We expect the number to be even greater when we conduct our next review for March 2009.

Clearly, at least at the local level, governments have the technology and are beginning to use it to provide easier access to public

records, but more can be done with leadership at the state level.

The concept of using the internet to make pubic records more accessible is not new. Under the federal FOIA, federal agencies have been required to post certain public records online since passage of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996. The agencies also are required to prepare annual reports on FOIA requests made over the previous year. Although full implementation of the Act may have fallen short of the expectations of many FOIA experts, the goals of the Act are important; making access to public records

easier.

Massachusetts, which at one time was considered the center of technological innovation in the United States, should be leading the way to making access to public records easier through technology. It would not mean that enforcement would be unnecessary, but it may be less necessary. In any event, it is an alternative that should be explored. At the very least, the Secretary of State’s Public Records Division should lead the way by at least posting on its website information (amount, type, resolution, final decision) about the complaints (informal or formal) it handles each year regarding public record law violations.

Karla J. de Steuben is an attorney and the creator of the Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government, a project of Common Cause Massachusetts. She serves on the governing board of Common Cause Massachusetts and on the board of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

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One Response to “20th-century problem, 21st century solution”

  1. don warner saklad Says:

    Minutes of the public meetings of our Boston City Council are too brief to be understood by most people. A cross index is not readily provided for docket numbers. The Boston City Clerks office takes an adversarial posture deflecting enquiries about the Minutes.

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