While Massachusetts lawmakers have made modest strides toward increasing transparency on Beacon Hill, there is still plenty of road to travel.
The latest example of the work that remains is the battle between the state supervisor of public records and Gov. Charlie Baker.
The records supervisor, Rebecca S. Murray, wants Attorney General Maura Healey to essentially go to court to force Baker’s office to turn over records related to calls from constituents. The records have been requested by another news organization.
Baker has thus far refused to comply with Murray’s order, falling back on a 1997 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court that he believes exempts his office from the state Public Records Law.
For two decades, Republican and Democratic governors have used the court’s so-called Lambert ruling as an excuse to keep executive office records hidden from the public. And, for years, Secretary of State William Galvin and his supervisors of public records have been willing to go along.
That is, until January, when Murray took over the supervisor’s job.
CommonWealth magazine reported last week that Murray, who previously worked as an attorney in Galvin’s elections division, ordered the governor to provide “the requested records or a response explaining with specificity how these requested records are not subject to disclosure.”
The governor’s response: We don’t have to turn over the records, and we don’t have to give you details. And don’t bother appealing the decision.
“By extension, and as recognized by your predecessor, this office is also not subject to any appeal process prescribed by the Public Records Law and the secretary’s regulations,” wrote Cathy M. Judd-Stein, the governor’s deputy chief legal counsel, in a letter to Murray. “The office of the governor, however, at this time continues its voluntary practice to consider and respond to public records requests on a case-by-case basis.”
Count us among those underwhelmed by the administration’s willingness to “voluntarily” turn over records if it feels like it.
Massachusetts is one of only two states -- Michigan is the other -- that essentially awards itself a blanket exemption from public records laws.
Murray was similarly unimpressed. In a letter to Baker’s office last week, she said its response “does not adequately explicate how all of the requested records relating to constituent calls are exempt from disclosure under the language of the Public Records Law or related case law.”
In making her case, Murray also pointed to the actual definition of public records: “Any record made or received by any officer or employee of any executive office.”
Seems clear enough to us.
We agree with the Pioneer Institute. The Boston-based think tank, in a letter to Baker last month, said “the reliance on a broad interpretation of Lambert has devolved into a practice that discourages transparent and accountable government.”
Pioneer noted that Baker’s decision to keep secret his administration’s dealings runs counter to his good-government reputation.
“Pioneer believes that you have the authority to suspend Lambert’s application to your office and that such an act would be consistent with your administration’s practices thus far,” the group wrote in its letter.
We hope Healey is willing to take on the governor on the issue, if necessary, but it shouldn’t come to that.
What we really hope is that Baker takes this opportunity to show leadership as an advocate for open government.
While much was made of the Legislature’s overhaul of the antiquated Public Records Law last year, the fact remains that lawmakers continue to exempt themselves from that statute and changes to it. And other branches of government, including the judiciary, do little to share their work with the public.
Baker can send a powerful message by joining the governors of 48 other states in bringing greater transparency to the workings of the executive branch.
His constituents deserve no less.