Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

Opinion

October 24, 2013

Public record laws need reform

(Continued)

Another favorite practice of government organizations hoping to keep public records secret is to threaten to charge by the hour – often at overtime rates – for a documents search. This can lead to bills of hundreds of dollars for routine records requests, which has an often-intended chilling effect on the search for information.

Kocot’s proposal, backed by several media and good-government groups, would require state agencies to name a public access officer, cap the cost of copy pages at 7 cents and require that electronic copies of the documents be provided when possible. Gone are the days where clerks had to root through dark rows of shelves, sorting through dusty files before duplicating the requested information on a rickety copier.

Much of the information can be sent through email or shared with a thumb drive.

Just as important is ensuring citizens have access to documents pertaining to all levels and branches of government. The Legislature, for example, exempts itself from the public records law, a practice also followed by Gov. Deval Patrick’s office. Kocot’s bill would set up a commission to consider changing the practice. A separate bill would exempt disciplinary investigations in police departments, along with 911 emergency recordings. This would be a considerable mistake, depriving citizens of a full, open and honest accounting of how well those charged with keeping us safe are doing their jobs.

Much of the difficulty in getting access to public records stems from a lack of accountability for the government officials required to provide them; breaking access laws bring little more than a wag of the finger.

Kocot’s bill would allow those who sue for access to public records to seek attorney’s fees if they win their case, which could force those in charge of documents to take requests more seriously. That’s a good idea.

It’s easy to dismiss the dispute over access to public records as an argument between elected officials and the media. Public documents, however, are open to anyone, regardless of profession or politics. They are the bread and butter of government, and need to be available to its citizenry.

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