Government records should not be secret.
The primary reason for such openness, of course, is that the public needs access to information to ensure our government is working in our best interests. The public has a right — a need — to know if their ward councilor voted in a secret session to steer a city job to a relative, how police handled a controversial arrest, or whether their kids’ school is the one with lead in its water pipes. The right to information exists whether the person seeking the information is a journalist working on a story or an engaged citizen studying up for Spring Town Meeting.
Yet it is equally important that the public have access to records to make sure those in government do a proper job of keeping the records themselves.
So a new proposal by Gov. Charlie Baker to cut off access to birth, marriage and death records fails the public on both counts.
Baker’s plan would bar public access to birth and marriage certificates for 90 years from their filing and death certificates for 50 years. Unless the records belong to an individual, their family, or are being requested by a state or municipal clerk, anyone seeking them would need a court order. Currently, such records are generally available to anyone for a small fee.
Baker says the move would bring the state into line with “best practices” involving vital records, and would protect citizens from identity theft and fraud. Tellingly, however, no one in his administration could offer examples of such wrongdoing.
“I honesty don’t understand it,” Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade. “I wasn’t aware that we had a problem with people pirating vital records for nefarious purposes, which seems to be the implication here.”
It is far more likely that the governor’s office hopes to keep the records from the prying eyes of the media. The Baker administration and the Boston Globe have been wrangling over access to millions of copies birth and marriage certificates the governor clearly does not want to provide.
“Sealing off these records for such a long period of time doesn’t seem to be in the public’s interest,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “Access to these records is important, and the state shouldn’t be restricting it.”
It’s not just important to journalists — the records are vital to the work of genealogists and those looking to trace their family history.
The governor’s office said the public will still have access to “indices” of the vital records, as if that is a substitute for the granular information.
As we’ve learned in recent months, access to public information — all of it, not just a top sheet listing what the government has — is vital to the public interest. When records are kept hidden, bad things happen. The public never knew about the stacks of unprocessed license suspensions from other states until a Massachusetts truck driver who shouldn’t have been on the road crashed into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven people. And untold boxes of records related to the investigation of the state police overtime scandal have only recently been unearthed — just as the statute of limitations in part of the case is about to run out.
How can the public know the government is doing a competent job of keeping the records if members of the public can’t see the records themselves?
Even the method the governor used to try to make these public records secret was done on the sly. The suggested change in the law was slipped into an outside section of next year’s proposed budget. If you truly want openness and debate, you don’t bury your controversial idea under $44.6 billion in spending. And if you truly are concerned with ensuring privacy and combating fraud, come up with a proposal that involves something more specific than shutting the doors of town hall in the face of 7 million state residents.
Baker’s proposal would have to be approved by the state Legislature, which has made several modest strides toward government transparency in recent years. Lawmakers should reject it for the step back that it is.