SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

October 23, 2013

Our view: Public records laws need reform

Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as the birthplace of American democracy. Sadly, however, the state and its legislators have not done enough to ensure complete and timely access to the public records that show citizens how that democracy works — or doesn’t work.

Public documents are where the story of a community’s civic life is recorded for everyone to see: What does the plan for that shopping mall down the street look like, and who is suing to stop its construction? Who has been arrested near my child’s school, and with what crimes were they charged? How much are we paying in pension costs for that “retired” school superintendent who took a job in another state?

Too often, however, the answers to these questions are difficult and costly to find in Massachusetts, which trails other states in access to public records.

“I’ve long been puzzled and somewhat embarrassed, frankly, that Massachusetts lags behind so many other states in the strength of our public records laws and enforcement of them,” Robert Bertsche, general counsel to the New England Newspaper and Press Association, said last week.

Bertsche was testifying before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which has before it several bills aimed at making records more readily available to the public.

It’s not just an important subject for the press; it’s an individual issue as well — several key issues that directly affect citizens’ access to the workings of their government were discussed.

A bill by House Chairman Peter Kocot, for example, would cut costs for people seeking copies of public records.

This is a sorely needed update. As the State House News Service noted in a story last week, “While computer technology has allowed individuals to call up information with their fingertips, people seeking public records are often given piles of printouts and a bill for 20 cents a sheet, if the agency approves the request. State courts routinely charge $1 per page.”

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