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Advocates look for ways to make Beacon Hill more transparent

February 2, 2019

BOSTON (AP) — For ordinary citizens, Beacon Hill can sometimes feel like a black box — it’s not always clear exactly what’s going on in there, or how it all works.

To try to make the Statehouse a bit more translucent, activists, lawmakers and others have tossed around ideas — sometimes unsuccessfully — aimed at giving the public a clearer view of the inner workings of their government.

Here are some of the ideas:

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72 HOUR RULE

Despite a reputation for sluggishness, Beacon Hill lawmakers can rush through bills when motivated.

One proposal aimed at slowing down that process would require that a bill be filed in the Massachusetts House at least 72 hours before it can be voted on, instead of the current 24 hours.

Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat, proposed the change in the House, arguing that giving just 24 hours to lawmakers and the public to review a bill is unreasonable. He said many constituents first learn about a bill after a vote has already been taken.

Opponents argue that by the time a bill comes to the floor for a vote, the issue has typically been discussed and been the subject of public hearings. They say a 72-hour-rule would needlessly slow the legislative process.

The House debated and rejected the amendment Wednesday.

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LAMBERT RULING

At first reading, the state’s public records law seems clear enough — granting the public access to an array of documents made or received by “any officer or employee of any agency, executive office, department, board, commission, bureau, division or authority of the commonwealth.”

But governors — including former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and Republican Gov. Mitt Romney — have claimed exemption from the rule. They point to a 1997 court ruling, Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council, which asked whether a questionnaire submitted to the council by a judicial applicant is a public record.

The court found that since the council is an “interviewing and screening body whose sole purpose is to assist the governor” its records are essentially the governor’s records. It went on to conclude that since the state’s public records law doesn’t expressly include the Legislature, judiciary or governor there is “no merit” to the argument that the questionnaire is a public record.

The ruling has since been interpreted by governors to mean they are exempt from the public records law — to the consternation of open records advocates.

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STATEMENTS OF FINANCIAL INTERESTS

Politicians, candidates and policymakers are required to file “statements of financial interests.”

The statements include information about salaries, business holdings, government securities, stocks, bonds, other financial investments, real estate holdings, and mortgages as well as gifts, honoraria, and reimbursements valued at more than $100.

The statements are available online — sort of.

Anyone hoping to look at the documents online has to register with the state, including turning over their name, phone number, email address and uploading an image of an ID. The public official will be alerted that their information has been viewed — and who has viewed it.

Groups like the Pioneer Institute and others argue that demanding an ID and alerting the public figure that an individual has been reviewing their statement could discourage people from looking up the records. They say the website should provide anonymous online access.

They also note that some of the disclosure requirements are outdated. The top category for assessed value of real estate, for example, is $100,001 or more.

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OPEN MEETING LAW

Ask advocates of open government in Massachusetts what irks them most, and many will point to the Legislature’s decision to exempt itself from the state’s open meeting law as perhaps the most glaring example of Beacon Hill’s lack of transparency.

The law requires that most meetings of public bodies — such as local boards of selectmen and school committees — be held in public. The law excludes the Legislature and its committees.

The practical effect is that the Legislature can do some of its deliberating out of the public eye.

A 2016 overhaul of the state’s public records law created a special commission of House and Senate members to study whether the Legislature’s exemption should continue. The commission failed to produce any final recommendations.

In 2018, Attorney General Maura Healey said her office received 317 complaints of alleged violations of the state’s open meeting law and was able to resolve 235 of the complaints.

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