(BOSTON) – State Representative Harold Naughton, Jr. joined his colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives to pass legislation that updates its public records laws and enhances accountability measures. The legislation enumerates a timeframe and process in which requested documents must be produced and ensures that judicial remedies can be sought.
“This legislation further enhances the public’s access to their government,” said Representative Naughton. “Through this bill’s passage in the House, we are ensuring transparency and accountability across local and state government.”
This consensus legislation represents the first update to state’s public records law in more than 40 years. Under the bill, Massachusetts will have standardized processes through which the public can access records and guidelines for the fees associated with obtaining documents.
This legislation requires municipalities and agencies to designate a records access officer to assist the public and facilitate timely responses. To create a predictable and rigorous timeline for responses, the bill mandates that records access officers comply with a request within ten business days of receipt. If the officer is unable to do so, he or she must contact the requester to identify pertinent documents, provide a fee estimate and specify why more time is needed. The bill caps the amount of time that may be taken for a response. Agencies must comply within 60 days, and municipalities must comply within 75 days. An extension may only be granted one time.
To ensure that the public can access records for a reasonable fee, agencies and municipalities will be prevented from charging for the initial time spent responding to a request, unless that request exceeds two hours for municipalities and four hours for agencies. The hourly rate at which an agency or municipality can charge for a request is also capped in this bill, a provision which was not previously included in Massachusetts’ public records law. Fees and costs can be appealed by the requesting party and, accordingly, the supervisor of public records may reduce any unreasonable fee.
The judicial provisions, processes and remedies contained in this bill significantly heighten enforceability and accountability measures. Previously courts were unable to award attorney fees, address improperly incurred costs or award civil damages. Under this legislation, courts will now be able to award attorney fees, reduce or waive costs, and award civil damages. Additionally, the bill expands the Attorney General’s powers by granting the Attorney General the power to file an enforcement suit against any agency or municipality, and intervene in cases involving public records. It also empowers the Attorney General to seek civil penalties for violations of public records laws.
With changes included in the bill, records must be provided electronically and agencies must post commonly requested public records online. Records access officers will keep track of requests, response times and fees charged.
This bill follows the launch of free public WiFi to the State House and the Legislature’s updated website which received the Online Democracy Award, initiatives intended to facilitate public engagement.