Senate Passes Public Records Reform

COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
MASSACHUSETTS SENATE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON 02133-1053

Senator Joan B. Lovely
State Senator
2nd Essex District

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

February 4, 2016

Senate Passes Public Records Reform

(Boston) – Today the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed legislation reforming how the state handles public records. The legislation, originally sponsored by Senator Jason Lewis, is the first update to the public records law since the early 1970s.

“With provisions to improve compliance and encourage electronic postings, this bill brings Massachusetts’s outdated public records law into the 21st century,” said Senator Joan Lovely (D-Salem), Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which considers all matters on public records. “Today, people access information much differently than they did 40 years ago, so this bill comprehensively updates our current law to reflect these changes and connect people with public information more efficiently.”

The legislation will reduce costs for records requestors and ensure timely compliance with public records requests. The bill also brings Massachusetts in line with 47 other states and the federal government in allowing attorney’s fees to be awarded to plaintiffs who are victorious in court when denied records. The bill requires attorney fees to be awarded, except in certain defined situations.

Under the legislation, each state agency and municipality is required to appoint at least one public records access officer to serve as the point of contact for all public records requests and coordinate a timely and thorough response.  The public records officer does not have to be a new employee.

The bill limits the amount that state agencies and municipalities can charge for production of the records.  The limits are set at 5 cents per page for copies, down from 20 to 50 cents per page under current law, and the cost of a storage device.  The bill requires state agencies to provide four free hours of employee time and two free hours for municipalities. Charges for requests that require more time are limited to $25 per hour.

The bill prohibits charging for records if the agency or municipality does not provide the record within 15 days of the request or does not respond to the requestor within ten days.  It also requires punitive damages up to $5,000 if a court determines the government entity did not act in good faith.

Finally the bill requires state entities and encourages municipalities to post online many commonly requested public records.  In addition, records are required to be provided in electronic format unless requested otherwise.

During debate, Senator Lovely sponsored two successful amendments. The first amendment requires that any document submitted to a public entity must be provided electronically.

“Since most documents subject to public record today are drafted electronically, there shouldn’t be a need to waste time and resources scanning documents,” said Senator Lovely. “It’s easier and more efficient to simply have those very same documents emailed or shared electronically at the time of submission and that’s what the amendment aims to do.”

The second amendment permits municipalities to enter into contracts for off-site storage of records provided that storage vaults or file rooms do not prevent or unduly restrict a records access officer or custodian of records from providing or storing the information.

“Some cities and town halls right now may have boxes and boxes of records in a basement or storage room,” said Senator Lovely. “This amendment gives our local communities a common sense option to improve organization and compliance while ensuring access to public information.”

The bill will now be reconciled with the version passed by the House of Representatives before being sent to the Governor.

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