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Top state official trying to toughen public records law

May 26, 2015

BOSTON (AP) — The top official responsible for overseeing Massachusetts’ public records law said he’s considering pushing for a ballot question to overhaul it, including toughening enforcement of the measure and expanding it to partially include lawmakers.

State Secretary William Galvin said Tuesday that the current law doesn’t have enough teeth.

Galvin said he’d like to have someone in the Attorney General’s office assigned to handle the cases he refers when state agencies refuse to respond to legitimate records requests.

Galvin said the public records law should be expanded to at least cover contracts and payments made by state lawmakers, who have exempted themselves.

He said he’d prefer to work with the Legislature to come up with a bill, but short of that he’s ready to put a question before voters. The deadline to submit a proposed question for the 2016 ballot is Aug. 5.

“If there is no legislative action — which there has not been now for many years — then I think the only alternative would be a ballot question,” Galvin said.

Galvin has been criticized for not enforcing the public records law and for the high costs that some agencies seek to comply with requests.

But Galvin said he’s been aggressive in pressuring agencies to respond to records requests — and that he too is frustrated when records aren’t released in a reasonable amount of time.

“We come up against, oftentimes, recalcitrant agencies,” Galvin said. “I could cite many instances where agencies have refused, outright refused, to cooperate, and we’ve had to issue orders, but we didn’t have any effective means of enforcement.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Maura Healey said she’s committed to increasing access to public records.

“The attorney general’s office will continue to work with the Legislature and secretary of state’s office to make the commonwealth as transparent as possible,” said spokesman Christopher Loh.

Open-government advocates have long complained that Massachusetts public records laws are too cumbersome and restrictive

Galvin made his comments following a public hearing on more than a dozen bills related to the state’s public records laws, including:

— Requiring the state to make statements of financial interests filed by public officials available over the Internet

— Allowing for public inspection of records made or received by special state police officers at educational institutions

— Creating a special commission to examine the maintenance, preservation and storage of municipal records

— Making all records now in the custody of the state secretary which are 90 years or older open to public inspection.

State Rep. Antonio Cabral has sponsored a bill that would shift management of the public records law from Galvin’s office to a new “supervisor of public records” appointed by a five-member commission with representation from the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

Other bills would: reduce fees for records requests; require electronic records to be searchable and available online; designate a “records access officer” in government agencies; and let Massachusetts courts award attorney fees to successful litigants whose records requests were wrongly denied.

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