After moving to Boston, one of the first places I visited was the Prudential Center Skywalk. There’s a great view up on the 50th floor, along with a gift shop. One of the T-shirts in the gift shop caught my attention; it was parking ticket orange, and said “Boston: a FINE place to visit”. Boston parking enforcement is legend, and it’s led to underground classics like 1986’s “The Little Book of Boston Parking Horrors”.
The cover shows a guy choking a woman on the sidewalk and a woman chasing someone down the street with a hatchet. In the middle of it all, a Boston patrol officer calmly writes a citation to some poor schmuck whose meter expired. This isn’t much of an exaggeration. The stories in this book are terrible, and in the words of a friend, “you can’t make this stuff up”.
Today, there’s another tragedy going on, and it’s bigger than Boston. I’m talking about Massachusetts public records law. This video, from a Jan 21st rally for public records reform is shorter than the Little Book of Boston Parking Horrors, but the stories are just as painful to listen to.
Let me summarize a few points from the video:
- Suppose you sue the state for access to public records, and win in court. The MA public records law doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to recoup legal fees. MA is one of three states that doesn’t guarantee recoupment of legal fees.
- By statute, agencies are required to respond to public records requests within 10 business days. The 10-day time limit is routinely disregarded.
- The Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) is lobbying against public records reform. The MMA claims that public records requests create too much of a burden on municipal clerks. (I’ll have more to say about this later.)
- An internal affairs report from the Massachusetts State Police cost hundreds of dollars to obtain. Most of the cost went towards redaction, and most of the document was redacted.
- The Massachusetts State Police wanted to charge a $700 fee to estimate the cost for fulfilling a public records request. MA’s public records law allows agencies to charge fees for responding to a public records request, but they’re not permitted to charge for fee estimates. In the end, the state police wanted $9000 to process the request.
- One speaker filed a public records request with the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office. Having gone three months without a response, he brought the issue to the attention of the state Attorney General. The Attorney General’s office essentially said “Don’t like it? Go sue them yourself”.
- A reporter for the Bay State Examiner tried to file a public records request in person, at the Suffolk county DA’s office. Three police officers told him that he’d have to leave, or be forcibly removed.
- Muckrock founder Michael Morrissey was threatened with jail time for requesting public records. He was trying to find out how much money the state was sending to Walmart and 7-Eleven under the food stamp program. In another request, he spent $400 for a copy of a PowerPoint presentation, which took two years to get.
- Massachusetts is the second slowest state in fulfilling public records requests. On average, it takes 80 days for agencies to respond. (Recall that the statute requires agencies to respond within 10 business days.)
- Yahoo.com hosts a mailing list for town clerks. Town clerks have used this mailing list to share tips on “how to avoid dealing with public records requests” (aka how to circumvent Massachusetts Public Records law).
My own experiences have been similar (though not quite that bad). My first MA public records request was for an environmental study of the Alewife Brook. The report was about three-hundred pages long, and cost $76 dollars to obtain. DCR sent me a printed copy. The document’s footer contained the text “J:\Water\ProjectFiles\P100\10400_DCR\10400-003_Stormwater\Projects\AlewifeBrook\Report\Alewife Final Report_4_05_10.docx”. In other words, DCR printed out a Word document, and charged me $0.10/page, plus postage, plus time to have someone stand around and watch it come out of the printer. Seriously, if the responsive document is a .docx file sitting on someone’s J: drive, why can’t it be delivered via email, or posted to the agency’s web site?
One of my more recent requests generated 22 pages of responsive documents, at a cost of $3.70 per page. (Most of the cost went towards redaction.)
In short, our public records law leaves a lot to be desired.
We can do better. In fact, there’s precedent for doing better. Let’s compare the levels of transparency in Massachusetts Public Records Law vs the level of transparency in Massachusetts Political Finance. In the winter newsletter of the Office of Campaign and Political finance, OCPF boasts about some recent accolades:
The Massachusetts campaign finance law and OCPF’s disclosure system was ranked first among all states nationally, receiving an “A” grade from The Center for Public Integrity.
Massachusetts scored a 92 out of 100 in the “Political Financing” category, according to the study …
OCPF’s highest scores were in the sub-categories of “monitoring and enforcement” and public “access to political finance records.”
“We stress public disclosure, thorough auditing and education,” said Michael Sullivan, OCPF’s director. “It’s nice to see those efforts acknowledged.”
As our treasurer, I deal with OCPF’s reporting system on a regular basis — and they’ve done a good job with it. OCPF’s website allows you to look up any campaign or committee and see where their money is coming from, and where it’s going to. The system is designed such that reported information is never more than two weeks out of date.
Every time we make a bank deposit, we have to file a report with OCPF. Every two weeks, our bank files another report, showing the deposits we’ve made and checks that have cleared the bank. After our bank files, we’re responsible for clarifying any information that’s not directly evident from the bank records.
Transparency takes work. We do work for transparency, our bank does work for transparency, and the state and municipalities can damn well do the work too. Any good relationship requires trust, and the relationship between citizen and government is no different in that regard.
That brings me to my final point. There’s a bill — S.2120: An act to Improve Public Records — that’s coming up for a Senate vote on Thursday Feb 4th. It’s vitally important that you contact your State senator, and tell them we desperately need to improve Massachusetts Public Records law. If we can achieve a good level of transparency in political finance, then we can do it with public records too.