SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

October 23, 2013

Our view: Public records laws need reform

(Continued)

Another favorite practice of government organizations hoping to keep public records secret is to threaten to charge by the hour — often at overtime rates — for a documents search. This can lead to bills of hundreds of dollars for routine records requests, which has an often-intended chilling effect on the search for information.

Kocot’s proposal, backed by several media and good-government groups, would require state agencies to name a public access officer, cap the cost of copy pages at 7 cents and require that electronic copies of the documents be provided when possible. Gone are the days where clerks had to root through dark rows of shelves, sorting through dusty files before duplicating the requested information on a rickety copier. Much of the information can be sent through email or shared with a thumb drive.

Just as important is ensuring citizens have access to documents pertaining to all levels and branches of government. The Legislature, for example, exempts itself from the public records law, a practice also followed by Gov. Deval Patrick’s office. Kocot’s bill would set up a commission to consider changing the practice. A separate bill would exempt disciplinary investigations in police departments, along with 911 emergency recordings. This would be a considerable mistake, depriving citizens of a full, open and honest accounting of how well those charged with keeping us safe are doing their jobs.

Much of the difficulty in getting access to public records stems from a lack of accountability for the government officials required to provide them; breaking access laws bring little more than a wag of the finger.

Sean Musgrave, Muck Rock projects editor, testified last week that the average response time for one of his groups’ public records requests is 76 days — almost eight times the 10-day deadline set by law.

“I’m in the trenches every day filing these requests, and mostly getting denied or not answered at all,” Musgrave said, adding that many of his group’s requests are simply “put into spam folders for deletion.”

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