Why the Mass. public records law is a joke

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By Paul Pronovost

The latest CommonWealth magazine includes a report that, sadly, is not the least bit surprising: The state’s public records law is a joke. Well, that’s my interpretation. Here’s how reporter Colman Herman put it:

“A law designed to shine a bright light on the inner workings of state and local government in Massachusetts is instead leaving much of the bureaucracy in shadows, if not total darkness. A seven-month investigation by CommonWealth revealed that public officials at all levels of government frequently game the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the state’s counterpart to the federal Freedom of Information Act. “

“…Huge swaths of state government are exempt or claim exemptions from the Public Records Law.”

“…And those sectors of government that are clearly subject to the Public Records Law often subvert it. The bottom line: Public records are not always so public in Massachusetts.”

“…The stonewalling tactics used by public officials include ignoring records requests, claiming records don’t exist, disingenuously claiming exemptions, redacting so much from the records as to render them useless, and charging so much money to produce the documents that they are unaffordable for most citizens. “

Herman spent seven months investigating the state law and many of us working journalists can tell you it’s even worse than he reports. Here at the Cape Cod Times, each spring we conduct an annual inspections of various aspects of the state’s Public Records Law and Open Meeting Law. The compliance by public officials is consistently fair to poor, with violations ranging from basic ignorance to willful disregard.

How can this be? After all, open government is a fundamental part of a healthy democracy. And public officials, those who have been elected by their fellow citizens, can only be truly effective representatives if the public is informed and engaged. Transparency is what has long separated America’s government from most others in the world, and its longevity is proof of its success.

Part of the problem is that the very people who create and enforce the laws of the land often find open government to be a nuisance. They see it slowing the wheels of bureaucracy. They believe public comment to be an intrusion. They see us as an impediment to getting things done.

Another part of the problem is that the members of the Fourth Estate do a poor job articulating why the public should care, and so many people view the issue as a dispute between the press and politicians. There have been efforts to change that perception and they can’t come a minute too soon.

It should be said that not every officer, elected body or agency ignore the public records law. Many are very good about observing not only the letter but also the spirit of open government. And that’s a good thing. More must follow. The government’s business is all of our business.

Paul Pronovost is the editor of the Cape Cod Times

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