Massachusetts’ Broken Public Records Law

The Boston Globe ran an article today on Massachusetts’ broken public record system.  They had Northeastern students request basic public information from every city and town in Massachusetts.  Few responded in the required ten days, and many quoted exorbitant fees to produce the records.

I request public records fairly often for my practice, and this mirrors my experience. Requests are never acknowledged within ten days, compliance is laggardly at best, and flimsy excuses why the records cannot be produced or cost a gazillion dollars are a dime a dozen (if only records were so cheap).

When I was a public defender, I volunteered to send public records requests to every police department in our office’s jurisdiction to get their standard operating procedures. We wanted nice binders of department policies (like some put online), so that it would be easy to check if police in a given case followed their own rules. Out of 17 police departments, one complied, a couple quoted exorbitant fees, and most refused on the basis that the request was “detrimental to the police function.” Since I didn’t have a budget for to pay fees or sue the departments, we tabled the project and went back to requesting policies case-by-case through the court discovery process.

Now, in private practice, I consider myself lucky if the response to a record request is a fee quote that my client or I can afford to pay, even if it is excessive. That doesn’t happen often. I recently had to go to the Secretary of State to compel the State Police to produce records from a long-closed arson investigation, and I have learned to always send my requests by certified mail so the agencies can’t claim they never got them.

Massachusetts residents who are interested in government transparency, I urge you to contact your state legislators and light a fire under the stalled public records reforms!

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