Legislature Reforms Public Records Laws; Creates Rigorous Timeline for Responding to Requests

First Update in More Than 40 Years

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                     

Contact: Michael Gallant

Email Michael.Gallant@mahouse.gov

Phone: 617.722.2380

June 3, 2016

Legislature Reforms Public Records Laws; Creates Rigorous Timeline for Responding to Requests

First Update in More Than 40 Years

(BOSTON) – The Legislature to passed a bill updating public records laws and enhancing accountability measures. The legislation creates a standardized timeframe and process in which requested documents must be produced and ensures that judicial remedies can be sought.

“These reforms will significantly enhance accountability, access to public records, and enforcement,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “Our greatest asset in Massachusetts is our civic-minded citizenry and it is my hope that this bill will foster increased and productive engagement from the public. I am pleased that diverse groups - including Common Cause, the ACLU and the Massachusetts Association of Town Clerks - have expressed support for these compromise reforms and I look forward to seeing the positive results stemming from these updates.”

This legislation ensures that Massachusetts’ residents have access to a modern and strong public records law,” said Representative Peter V. Kocot, Chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight (D-Northampton). “I want to thank Speaker DeLeo, Chairman Dempsey and Vice-Chair Kulik for their leadership and commitment to this important issue.”

"The Legislature has passed thoughtful and balanced legislation which improves access to public records while also protecting our cities and towns from overly burdensome procedures and unfunded mandates,” said Representative Stephen Kulik, Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on Ways & Means (D-Worthington). “I thank our partners in both municipal government and open government advocates for their constructive input in crafting this bill which responsibly improves transparency and accountability in all levels of government for our citizens."

“I believe the most important aspect of the compromise public records bill is that it was debated openly,” said Representative Mathew Muratore (R-Plymouth). “We were not sitting around a table in a closed room; instead the committee invited the press and public, and heard testimony from a number of stakeholders, which helped us to shape the bill into the final version that was voted through unanimously.”

This consensus legislation represents the first update to state’s public records law in more than 40 years. Under the bill, Massachusetts will have standardized processes through which the public can access records and guidelines for the fees associated with obtaining documents. 

To create a predictable and rigorous timeline for responses, the bill mandates that records access officers comply with a request within ten business days of receipt. If the officer is unable to do so, he or she must contact the requester to identify pertinent documents, provide specific reasons for withholding, or give a reasonable timeframe in which the agency will produce the records. Agencies must comply within 15 days, and municipalities must comply within 25 days. Upon a showing of good cause, a single extension of not more than 20 business days for an agency or 30 days for a municipality may be granted.

To ensure that taxpayers can reasonably access records, agencies may not charge for the first four hours of employee time to search for, compile, segregate, redact or reproduce records. Municipalities may not charge for the first two hours of employee time unless they have a population of 20,000 or less. If a records officer fails to respond to a request within ten business days, no fee may be charged. Additionally, no charge shall be incurred for redacting or segregating documents unless required by law or approved by the supervisor of records.

The judicial provisions, processes and remedies contained in this bill significantly heighten enforceability and accountability measures. Previously, courts were unable to award attorney fees, address improperly incurred costs or award civil damages. There is a presumption fees and costs being awarded, with a few exceptions. This legislation also permits punitive damages, which will be no less than $1,000 and no more than $5,000, to be awarded if the court finds an agency or municipality did not act in good faith. 

Adhering to the changes included in the bill, records must be provided electronically. Additionally, the legislation requires agencies – and municipalities to a feasible extent – to provide commonly requested public records online.

The bill was signed into law by Governor Baker in a ceremony in his office earlier today.