Monday, July 27, 2015

Sunday Globe Special: A Matter of Public Records

That's what is this whole blog.

"Mass. agencies often limit access to records; State agencies show little regard for law, with access rules among weakest in country" by Todd Wallack Globe Staff  July 18, 2015

Thomas Workman, a Taunton attorney who frequently testifies as an expert witness in drunken driving cases, has spent years gathering data on the accuracy of Breathalyzer machines across the country.

Why, there a problem?

Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington all provided copies of their databases of breath-alcohol test results for free. Wisconsin offered the data for $75.

But when Workman requested similar information from his home state, he ran into a hurdle that stopped him cold: The Massachusetts State Police demanded $2.7 million for its records.

“I was more disappointed than surprised,” said Workman, who never got the data. “I do work across the country, and I have more trouble trying to get information in Massachusetts than other places.”

It’s not just Workman’s perception. Massachusetts may have the weakest public records laws in the country, according to a Globe review of state practices and reports from public information advocates.

In Massachusetts, government agencies routinely take months to respond to requests, insist that records considered public in other states are confidential, or demand staggering sums for documents that are readily available in other parts of the country for free or at nominal cost.

Massachusetts ranked 49th out of the 50 states in the time it took agencies to answer public records requests filed through Muckrock, a Boston-based news startup that helps people obtain government documents. While Massachusetts law requires state agencies to make a substantive response within 10 days, Muckrock found they actually took 82 days on average to respond to requests filed by its users. Only Hawaii took longer.

Louisiana, which ranked just ahead of Massachusetts, was more than three weeks faster in answering such requests. Neighboring Rhode Island complied in just 15 days.

The Bay State stands out in other ways. A Globe review of public records policies across the country found it is the only state where the judicial branch, Legislature, and governor’s office all assert they are completely exempt from the law.

That's tyranny.

It is one of only three states where people cannot recoup their legal fees if they win a lawsuit over improperly withheld documents, a restriction that discourages citizens from suing. And Massachusetts is the only state where jails and prisons can legally withhold logs of the people they lock up, the survey of public records advocates in all 50 states found.

“It is one of the worst state public records laws in the country,” said Katie Townsend, litigation director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks public records issues across the country. “It’s hard to say whether it is the worst, but it is definitely toward the bottom.”

You are not telling me anything I didn't already know.

The state’s anemic records laws are particularly striking given the state’s historic role in creating American democracy and more recent leadership in other areas, including higher education and civil rights.

Well, there is the Massachusetts myth that is promoted and believed, and then their is the reality.

“It’s astonishing because it’s a state that prides itself in good government and being the cradle of liberty,” said Mary Connaughton with the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that supports more government disclosure. But when it comes to government openness, she said, “if we are not at rock bottom, we are very near the bottom.”

Not if you have been paying attention.

The lack of government transparency is more than an just an annoyance for watchdog groups and journalists. It makes it more difficult for anyone to tell whether public officials are doing their job or to uncover long-festering problems.

That’s particularly significant in Massachusetts, where the government has recently suffered from an array of management failures that took years to come to light, including unbridled favoritism in the hiring of probation officers, rampant falsification of tests at the state drug lab, and the failure to properly supervise everything from compounding pharmacies to children in foster care.

Related: Off Probation 

The Patrick regime was never put on it, as only a fraction of the neglect and scandal is mentioned there. There is also the burgeoning heroin crisis on his watch, the torture center at Bridgewater, the failed state websites (that they then lied about), the budget deficit he left, etc, etc.

Some think this state’s culture of government secrecy has fostered an environment that can facilitate corruption, long shielding officials’ actions from public scrutiny.

Ya' think?

Three consecutive speakers of the House were convicted of felonies, while a Chelsea public housing official eventually went to prison after hiding his $360,000 salary for years.

Time to flop down a link.

“The states with the weakest public records laws seem to have the highest levels of corruption,” said Terry L. Mutchler, an attorney with Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia who previously ran Pennsylvania’s open records office. “I do not believe it is a coincidence, the evidence is so clearly to the contrary.”

Massachusetts wasn’t always seen as a national laggard. The state statute, modeled on the federal Freedom of Information Act, was originally enacted in 1973 — before Connecticut, Rhode Island, and many other states passed sunshine laws of their own.

But while the federal government and other states strengthened their laws after the Watergate revelations that forced President Richard Nixon from office in 1974 and other scandals around the country, Massachusetts did the opposite — steadily exempting more and more records from the law, and ignoring complaints about the law’s failings.

How odd from the state that was the only one to vote McGovern.

Some critics blame the state’s long history of one-party rule in the Legislature. The Democrats have controlled both chambers since the late 1950s, and many state lawmakers regularly run unopposed. Complacency and worse can grow out of such easy dominance, they say.

Related: The Ruling Party 

Massachusetts' Democracy 

That explains a lot!

“Transparency tends to suffer when one party, Democrats or Republicans, exercises such uniform control over time of state government,” said Erin O’Brien, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a Democrat whose office is charged with helping oversee the public records law, agreed that one-party domination of the Legislature could be a factor. But he said he didn’t think it matters which party is in control.

“It is not a partisan thing,” Galvin said. “Whoever is in power tends not to be welcoming to public records.”

Galvin pointed out that Republican and Democratic governors alike have argued the governor’s office is completely exempt from the public records law for years. In addition, Galvin said, Massachusetts agencies have a long history of making their own rules for doling out information, and have been reluctant to give up control of their records.

“There has been sort of a bureaucratic fiefdom” that has developed over the years, Galvin explained.

Related: Galvin Guards Government Secrets

Also see:

“The amount of secrecy in Massachusetts relative to other states is really astounding.”

Gotta keep those campaign donors secret.

There are other possible explanations as well.

One is that watchdog groups in Massachusetts have been largely ineffective in pushing for stronger public records laws, either because they lacked clout or were focused on other issues, such as campaign finance or criminal justice reform. And major local news media, including the Globe, until recently have rarely focused coverage on problems obtaining records, concerned that it could look too much like a self-interested complaint.

Or they didn't want to piss off sources.

The situation may finally be changing. A number of reform-minded advocacy groups, such as the state chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, have joined forces this year to push for legislation to overhaul the public records law.

Both House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg indicated they support updating the public records law. And Galvin has threatened to launch a ballot initiative of his own to strengthen the law if the Legislature does not act this year.

“Momentum is building,” state Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, noted after a standing-room-only crowd jammed a hearing in support of efforts to revamp the public records law in May.

Honestly, what took so long?

Just last week, a legislative committee endorsed a bill by state Representative Peter V. Kocot that would reduce the cost for copies, make it easier for requesters to get documents electronically, and give citizens the right to attorneys fees if they win a lawsuit to make records public.

But the Northampton Democrat’s bill would also give agencies more time to respond to requests and do nothing to close the litany of exceptions to what is public. “It doesn’t address a lot of the problems in the law,” said Robert J. Ambrogi, a media attorney and executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

Kocot said he hopes the Legislature will take a hard look at the exemptions in the law later.

And there’s no guarantee Kocot’s bill will pass. It is now being reviewed by a second panel, the House Committee on Ways and Means (where a similar proposal died last legislative session). And the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a lobbying group representing cities and towns, complained Friday that the new requirements amount to “costly new unfunded mandates.” Governor Charlie Baker has yet to take a position on the legislation.

RelatedWhere’s Charlie Baker on public records overhaul?

As officials and interest groups ponder possible changes, the longstanding pattern of denial and delay continues. Lawyers, journalists, and activists say they regularly face obstacles trying to obtain records, partly because of the unusually large number of exemptions written into Massachusetts law.

And YOU PAID FOR IT ALL, taxpayers!

Consider the case of Emory G. Snell Jr., who was sent to prison in 1995 for killing his wife after she was found dead in her bed in Barnstable. The conviction was basely partly on an autopsy that found she died from being smothered, rather than natural causes.

But long after Snell was locked away, questions emerged about the competence of the medical examiner who performed the autopsy. A former supervisor, now deceased, had alleged that the examiner was barred from participating in homicide investigations because of past mistakes.

But when Snell and his attorneys tried to obtain the medical examiner’s records to confirm the allegations, the state refused to release the file. The reason? The office of the chief medical examiner noted that personnel records — including disciplinary records — are exempt from the public records law, even when it’s arguably in the public interest for the records to be released.

“I think if the public knew, they would find it shocking,” said Snell’s attorney, Amy Belger.


Belger still hopes to obtain the records through other legal avenues, but, for now, Snell remains behind bars, and the public remains in the dark about potential problems in the state medical examiner’s office.

Oh, great, another incompetent star agency!

Even when records are clearly public information, it’s common for agencies to ignore requests or take months to respond.

The Department of Children and Families took 18 months to respond to a Globe request for legal claims against the agency after it lost track of a Fitchburg preschooler who was later found dead. DCF only provided the records this month, when a reporter told the agency he planned to write about the delay.

“It is unacceptable that this request took so long to complete,” said Rhonda Mann, director of communications for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which includes DCF. Mann said the Baker administration inherited many outstanding records requests when it took office in January and is working to clear the backlog.

Patrick left this guy such a mess.

But no matter how long agencies take to respond, they know they won’t be penalized for breaking the legal requirements for timely disclosure.

That looks like tyranny to me. State is above the law?

The statute calls for a potential fine of up to $500 and a year in prison for violations. But the attorney general’s office can’t recall a single instance when it has prosecuted anyone for flouting public records rules.

Government officials who violate the law face no consequences other than a possible slap on the wrist,” said Ambrogi, the Boston media attorney.

Beyond delays in compliance, watchdogs say they have heard growing complaints that agencies are charging exorbitant fees for records, effectively denying access by making it unaffordable.

What do they have to hide?

The State Police, for example, has a penchant for charging unusually large fees, including nearly $43,000 for an electronic log of its public records requests. The department also tried to charge another reporter $710 just to obtain an estimate of what copies would cost.

But State Police may have topped themselves by demanding $2.7 million for a copy of its database of breath tests in 2012.

Related: Ruling allows police to withhold officers’ drunken driving records

Permanently withhold.

Also seeGlobe sues law enforcement agencies for withholding records

Good luck.

The state recently acknowledged that as many as 150 tests were flawed because the machines were improperly calibrated, and Workman suspects the data would show the problem was more widespread.

Even though Workman requested the data in electronic form, the State Police insisted on basing its estimate on the cost to print out the data in hard copy — all 2.5 million pages, at 50 cents a page. Agency officials also said it would require more than 41,000 hours — at $35 per hour — to review each page and redact any confidential information — even though Workman said he wasn’t seeking names or other personal data, and the state could simply delete those entire columns.

“They didn’t want me to have the data,” Workman said. “They were going to find a way to make it so expensive that they didn’t have to provide information that belongs to us all.”

State Police spokesman David Procopio said it turns out the agency made an error in calculating its cost estimate. He said the bill for Workman should be only $1.2 million.


“I am cognizant that is still a large amount of money, but the size of the cost estimate is in direct proportion to the scope and nature of the request,” Procopio said.

Such fees would not be allowed in many other states.

Meaning that state cop spokesman looks like a puke.

Many states require agencies to make records available in electronic form when possible, eliminating the cost of paper copies. (The secretary of state’s office has advised Massachusetts agencies they must do that as well, though it is not explicitly in the statute.)

And roughly one-third of the states, including California, Ohio, and Washington, restrict or prohibit charges for reviewing and redacting documents. West Virginia became the latest state to ban labor fees for compiling records in April.

In Massachusetts, citizens have the right to sue agencies that refuse to release records or charge excessive fees, but that can take years and cost thousands of dollars. And they can’t recoup their legal fees even when they prevail in court.

“Even when you win, you still lose and the public loses,” said Matthew R. Segal, legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts, which recently spent a year suing a consortium of local police departments after the group claimed it was exempt from the public records law.

Indeed, many journalists are stunned to discover how much more difficult it is to obtain basic records when they move to Massachusetts from states with more open government.


“It was like walking from the sunshine into a dark room,” said former Miami Herald editor Thomas Fiedler, who became dean of Boston University’s College of Communication in 2008.

In Florida, many records that are exempt from disclosure in Massachusetts are readily available: Employee disciplinary records. Mug shots. Jail booking logs. Many of these records are even available for free or online.

Unlike in Massachusetts, the Florida law covers portions of the courts, Legislature, and the governor’s office, and contains fewer exemptions.

And Florida has even prosecuted officials for violating the law; at least two people have been sent to prison, and many others have been forced to pay a $500 fine.

“In Florida, the default position is that government belongs to the public,” Fiedler said. “Here in Massachusetts, I got the sense that the burden is exactly the opposite.”

OMG, not only is this state worse than Florida, but the government thinks they own you here. You exist to serve and lavish tax loot on them.


I'd say you could start reading through the e-mails, but....

"Costs, delays keep public e-mails private in Mass." by Nicole Dungca Globe Staff  March 25, 2015

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of a private e-mail address shocked government watchdogs, because the practice could have blocked access to public documents. But in Massachusetts, even e-mails to and from government addresses are difficult to obtain.

Agencies routinely charge high fees — often several thousand dollars or more — or delay responses, dissuading the public from requesting information that should be readily available. E-mails between state officials are usually subject to public records law.

“Most routine requests should be free to the public in the spirit of the ‘open public records’ law,” Peter Caruso, an Andover attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, wrote in an e-mail. “The cost jettisons public records into secret records if [the cost is] too prohibitive for the people to see.”

Experts agree the issue will become even more important as government officials increasingly communicate through e-mail, text messages, and other electronic channels.

Roxbury Community College gave a faculty union a bill for $18,648 for memos and e-mails sent and received by administrators, such as college presidents, deans, and human resources directors. And the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recently billed the Globe $3,000 for requesting e-mails sent and received by Beverly A. Scott, who in February announced her resignation as general manager of the MBTA.

The frequent battles over obtaining e-mails highlight longstanding concerns about the Massachusetts public records law, which the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press, an advocacy group, considers one of the weakest in the country.

“Journalists and members of the public are placed in this terrible situation where they have to decide: ‘Do I want to be informed and pay thousands of dollars for it, or do I have to stay in the dark because I can’t afford this exorbitant fee?’ ” said Adam Marshall, a legal fellow with the group, which is based in Washington, D.C.

Agencies that charge such fees say they are necessary, and legal. They cite the stipulation in the state law that allows them to charge “reasonable” fees for the information. And they say the thousands of dollars are sometimes essential to give an employee time to search through voluminous e-mails, or print out and send the documents.

Yeah, forget about the State Police playing games with the stuff.

Lauren F. Goldberg, a managing attorney at Kopelman and Paige, said agencies often struggle with the time-consuming task of sifting through hundreds of e-mails.

“Virtually every custodian of public records seeks to comply with the law and wants to be able to, but there are practical issues that make it very hard,” said Goldberg, whose firm represents about 120 cities and towns. 

I'm tired of excuses, especially since taxpayers pay for it all.

In February, the Globe asked the MBTA to provide e-mails written or received by Scott that concerned weather and service during the height of the crisis in the transit system following a series of snowstorms.

In a letter, the T estimated that an attorney would need to spend 31 hours to review 629 e-mails — at a cost of $1,550. The T also estimated the agency would need to print nearly 7,300 pages at a cost of $1,460. Then, officials would need to send the pages to the Globe, which would cost roughly $100 in postage.

The grand total for the bill? $3,110.

Fox 25 reporter Mike Beaudet also requested five days of e-mails from Scott and a T spokesman, and received a bill of $15,317.

Questioned about the costs, a T spokesman said the Globe reporter could either narrow down the request or appeal the price tag.

The spokesman was referring to a stipulation in the law that allows the public to appeal the cost estimates to the office of Secretary of State William F. Galvin. That’s what happened in the case of the Massachusetts Community College Council, a faculty union that requested letters and e-mails from 14 community colleges across the state.

In response to the request, each of the colleges charged the union more than $1,800. In all, the requests would have cost the union about $132,000, according to the group’s attorney, William H. Shaevel.

Shaevel appealed the charges. In a March 20 ruling, Galvin’s office ordered the colleges to revise their estimates.

Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Galvin, said that’s the way the law is supposed to work: If costs are too high, the public can appeal.

Why must we have to run through such hoops in Massachusetts?

But such rulings are not the norm. A Globe review in 2014 found that in 50 of the most recent cases at the time, Galvin’s office ordered agencies to release more documents or justify its fees only 10 times.

In February 2014, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development gave Globe reporter Megan Woolhouse a bill for $2,932 for e-mails between Deloitte Consulting and two high level administrators. When Woolhouse appealed the estimate, Galvin’s office took the agency’s side and said the fees were justified.

Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors, said agencies also frequently use delays to discourage the public from requesting information.

The government that works for you!

In February 2014, Globe reporter Kay Lazar requested that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health provide e-mails from Cheryl Bartlett, the former public health commissioner, who resigned in October, and Karen van Unen, the executive director of the state’s medical marijuana program.

More than six months later, the agency provided a limited number of e-mails, many of them heavily redacted.

It's the Nixon White House over here.

In some cases, government entities say public records law doesn’t apply to them.

And that is the problem with AmeriKa.

Former governors Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick have argued that the governor’s office is exempt from the state’s public records law, because of a 1997 Massachusetts SJC decision that said the governor is not “explicitly included” in the law. Governor Charlie Baker’s staffers say they agree with the ruling.

The state public records law also doesn’t cover the Legislature or Judiciary. There are also other exceptions, such as legal advice from attorneys or messages containing medical information.

Government watchdogs and advocates for strong open records laws say agencies should be making stronger efforts to make access to public information cheaper — or free — without intervention from the state or long delays.

“If all the decisions and deliberations are happening on these electronic channels that are taking place out of sight of the public, it’s almost as if there can be this shadow government that’s operating in this electronic world,” Marshall said.

Yup, almo$t as if.... but that's "conspiracy" thinking.


RelatedHealey vows greater access to state records

After tiff, AG’s office resumes enforcing public records law

Up come the roadblocks:

"State putting up roadblocks for financial disclosure reports; Citizens seeking Mass. officials’ financial reports stymied by delays, costs" by Todd Wallack Globe Staff  May 10, 2015

At least 29 states post financial disclosure reports for lawmakers and other public officials on the Web, making it easy to see their investments and potential sources of conflicts with a few clicks. Most other states make the filings readily available for free to those who show up in person.

But not Massachusetts, which has set up a virtual gantlet to see the filings, even though the whole point of collecting the financial information is to inform the public.

In this state, residents must first show a photo ID and fill out a written request. And they are warned that a copy of the request will then be forwarded to the public officials to let them know who peeked at their filings.

Additionally, statements of financial interest aren’t always available to view the same day or for free as the law intended. And if you ask to see a lot of the reports, be prepared for an especially long wait and a hefty bill.

When the Globe asked to view this year’s reports for all 3,800 officials who file them, the State Ethics Commission said it would take “a number of months” to make the documents available. And it would only do so if the Globe submitted a cashier’s check payable to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for $14,175. In advance.

And the Globe didn’t even ask for copies.

“Oh my God. That is crazy,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, a senior vice president with Common Cause, a Washington-based group that supports open government, who said she couldn’t think of any other state that puts so many hurdles in the path of those seeking to view public officials’ financial disclosures. “That kind of process makes a mockery of the claim that these records are available to the public.”

What do they have to hide over on Beacon Hill, huh?

The $14,000 bill is just the latest illustration of how Massachusetts has one of the weakest public records retrieval systems in the country, according to open government groups. Agencies routinely refuse to release documents that are public in most of the rest of the country, take months to process requests, or demand big sums to see routine documents.

But the hurdles to obtaining financial disclosure forms are particularly glaring because of the basic and critical purpose of the reports — to let citizens know the sources of income, investments, and other financial ties of government officials. The reports are intended to show whether lawmakers or other high-ranking government officials might have hidden financial interests when they sponsor legislation, award a contract, or carry out their other duties.

“I can’t do my job very well if the public doesn’t have confidence in what I am doing,” said state Representative Carolyn C. Dykema, a Holliston Democrat who has sponsored legislation to put the reports on the Internet. “I think it’s an important check on the system.” 

Too late; the trust and confidence is gone.

State ethics officials, however, said they aren’t allowed to put the disclosure reports online because the law, enacted in 1978, permits them to provide them only to people who show a photo ID and submit a written request, which must then be forwarded to the government officials who filed the reports. Critics say those requirements could deter some people from ever asking for the reports for fear of retaliation from the officials who made the filings.

That's what it was meant to do. What $cum up on the hill.

“It’s subtle intimidation,” said Andrew Goodrich, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Jobs, a probusiness group that gathered and posted the filings for all 200 state legislators in 2013 on its own website to try to shine a light on how Beacon Hill operates.

The rules also create a significant amount of extra work.



“We are so backward compared to other states,” said Goodrich, who argues that all the filings should be posted online. “It should be free, public information.”

Some other requestors have had to wait even longer to see the reports. In 2010, the Massachusetts Republican Party complained that it had to wait two months, making it more difficult for them to prepare for upcoming elections.

Oh, Republicans are really getting screwed, huh?

And last week, the State Ethics Commission warned it would take months to respond to the Globe’s request even if the newspaper agreed to pony up more than $14,000 to see all the latest year’s filings. The commission took six weeks just to come up with a cost estimate.

It's called dragging your feet.

Indeed, the commission can be slow to fulfill even more modest requests. Ethics Commission spokesman David Giannotti declined to say Friday how much it would cost or how long it would take to view 50 or 100 reports. Another staffer said only that it would not be possible to see the filings the same day.

In part because of obstacles to getting the forms, the vast majority are never viewed at all. The Ethics Commission’s annual reports indicate less than one-fifth of the financial disclosures are ever requested by the public in the latest year available. In 2009, no more than 3 percent of the filings were requested.

Open government advocates say that Massachusetts’ own rich history of political corruption demonstrates the need for holding public officials accountable.

Huh? Political corruption? In Massachusetts? Pish-posh!

The previous three speakers of the House of of Representatives were all convicted of felonies. The most recent, Salvatore DiMasi, was found guilty of corruption charges after helping steer a tech contract to a firm in exchange for kickbacks.

He's being left to die in a Kentucky prison for what amounted to chump change. Shouldn't have been against casinos, Sal.

A former state senator, Dianne Wilkerson, was sent to prison for bribery after being caught on film stuffing $100 bills into her bra.

She is now a hero!

And Brian A. Joyce agreed last week to temporarily step down as assistant majority leader in the Senate until the Ethics Commission can investigate questions about his efforts on behalf of his law firm’s clients.

Related: The Joyce of the State Senate

The law says the filings are supposed to be “available for public inspection and copying during regular office hours” and doesn’t mention any fees for just viewing the documents.

Ethics staffers say they are also required to review the filings and black out any confidential information, which can create significant delays and expense.

Deirdre Roney, the ethics commission’s general counsel, estimated it would take between 5 and 15 minutes to review and redact each filing for home addresses and other private information. And because the commission has a small staff, she estimated it would take months for employees to find the time to do the redactions for all 3,800 Statements of Financial Interests (SFIs) that the Globe requested.

“As you may imagine, this is a time-consuming process,” Roney said. “We regret these delays and agree they are inconsistent with the statutory goal of making [the] information [to the extent not protected] available to the public in a timely way.”

Roney said the commission also realizes that charging more than $14,000 for a single year’s forms is a “significant” amount and it is looking into buying a new computer system that will make preparing the forms significantly faster and cheaper in the future. 

Given the history of computer overhauls in this state.... $igh.

“We do not take any issue with the current state of the law, but rather with the current state of our electronic resources,” Roney said in a written statement.

But both Common Cause Massachusetts and a Boston lawyer said the Ethics Commission should not charge citizens just to look at the reports.

“I found nothing in the ethics law or regulations that allows the commission to recoup fees for redaction,” said Robert A. Bertsche, a media lawyer with Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, added: “The kind of money they are asking . . . is shocking and outrageous. The whole point of the forms is for the forms to be available to the public.”

Not really.

In addition, the Ethics Commission may be violating state law by blacking out too much information.

The state ethics statute says the forms must be provided to the public, except for home addresses, which the commission has the discretion to delete. But several years ago, commission staffers began routinely redacting other data, including the names of spouses and other family members, the names of trusts, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and addresses of property owned by the filers.

The commission’s attorney insisted the agency is required to redact the additional information by a separate statute — the public records law — but both Common Cause and the media lawyer dispute that.

Ironically, Massachusetts was seen as a leader when it first passed the ethics law nearly four decades ago. But while most other states have since adopted more extensive disclosure requirements, that portion of the Massachusetts law has remained unchanged.

Now we are near last!

Wilmot, of Common Cause, said the state may have missed a key opportunity to revamp the rules when it updated other portions of the ethics law six years ago. “It fell through the cracks,” she said.

But Dykema said she is optimistic her bill to put the reports on the Web may finally win approval this legislative session because there seems to be greater interest this year in providing access to the government records. “I think it will be on the short list to talk about,” she said.


Also seeMany urging Mass. to ease access to public records

You know where the money is hidden?

"Records request comes with a price for lawyer seeking answers; Beacon Hill hearing Tuesday will focus on access, impediments to government files" by Maria Cramer Globe Staff  May 24, 2015

After correctional officers told Patricia DeJuneas she would have to lift her shirt and show her bra to get past prison security, the appellate lawyer filed a public records request. She wanted to know, among other things, how many other female attorneys trying to visit incarcerated clients had consented to such searches, and whether they had later filed complaints.

Related: AG Investigates Caged Heat

The state Department of Correction told her she could have the information for $4,302.60 — the cost, the agency’s letter to her said, of making copies and paying a paralegal to track down the information.

“The idea that we have to pay someone to look up records that show how we’ve been victimized is really insulting,” DeJuneas said.

High fees to obtain public records are not uncommon in Massachusetts, where some legislators are trying to strengthen access under the state’s public records law. A legislative hearing will be held Tuesday, when civil liberties groups, government watchdogs, and news organizations plan to lobby to change a law they say is archaic and does little to help the public learn about the work of government institutions.

In the case involving DeJuneas, state officials acknowledged that the information she asked for is public. But they said her request involved more than 2,200 pages of documents that include names of inmates, visitors, and lawyers that would have to be blacked out to comply with exemptions to the state’s public records laws.

“Those documents must be manually redacted, which adds to the cost of providing the records,” said Felix Browne, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Matthew R. Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said DeJuneas’s case underscores the flaws in the state’s public records laws.

“Here we are where we have a situation where Department of Correction officials did something that’s wrong,” he said. “One way to deal with that is to say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry. We’re going to look at our own records to see how many female attorneys have been treated this way, how they’ve been treated and we’re going to make it public.’ . . . But instead what we have is a hiding behind the public records law, which keeps the public in the dark about this problem and which stands in the way of solving it.”

The state’s public records law, which has had few changes since 1973, needs to be modernized, said state Representative Peter V. Kocot, cochairman of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which is holding Tuesday’s State House hearing.

Kocot is one of the lead sponsors on a bill that calls for designating a records access officer at each government agency, with the sole job of streamlining requests for public records. The bill would also require electronic records to be provided in a digital, searchable format, and would cap the fees for copies of documents.

“We’re trying to move to a system where taxpayers and the general public can economically and quickly learn what they want to know about government and how it works,” he said.

DeJuneas said one goal of her request was to find out whether the same correctional officers were conducting or ordering inappropriate searches. Women visiting prisons are searched by female officers.

She first raised the issue in February, after a correctional officer at MCI-Norfolk told her to “shake her bra” out after a metal detector went off because of its underwire. DeJuneas refused, and was later allowed into the medium-security prison to visit a prospective client.

Correction officials said officers would no longer ask female lawyers to lift their bras if they set off the alarm. But DeJuneas said officers at MCI-Norfolk wanted to search her again on May 16 when she returned to the prison to visit a client and her bra set off the alarm. She asked for a wand search, but instead, she said, they asked her to comply with a “further” search. They declined to tell her what that would entail and she refused to consent, according to a letter she wrote Daniel Bennett, the state’s public safety secretary.

Bennett’s spokesman said state officials are reviewing search procedures at prisons.

“The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and the Department of Correction are currently clarifying regulations regarding searches of attorneys at DOC facilities to ensure attorneys’ personal privacy is protected without compromising prison security,” Browne said.

The state attorney general’s office has assigned a civil rights lawyer to review DeJuneas’s complaints and similar complaints by other female attorneys.

A spokeswoman said the attorney general’s office is working with the Department of Correction and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to determine whether any prison search policies should be changed.

How long will that take?


"State panel advances public records bill" by Joshua Miller Globe Staff  July 16, 2015

Legislation aimed at significantly strengthening the public’s access to government documents got the green light Thursday from a key legislative committee — signaling that lawmakers may be ready to overhaul Massachusetts’ current public records law, considered one of the weakest in the country.

Advocates hailed the bill’s emergence from the joint House-Senate committee as a positive sign for a long-hoped-for reform of a law for years seen as an affront to open government.

“It’s a fantastic bill and has essentially everything we wanted,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a good-government group. “The signs are very good that the reform will get done and done fairly soon. It would be a great step forward for transparency in Massachusetts.”

Under state law, government records are presumed to be public unless protected by an exemption, such as those for active investigations and trade secrets. But advocates contend that requests for those public records, from government e-mails to contracts, are sometimes met with inaction because there’s no real penalty for noncompliance.

The new legislation would provide lawyers’ fees to requesters who, according to a court, were wrongfully kept from getting public records. Advocates say that would provide a strong incentive for cities, towns, and state agencies to fulfill public records requests.

A legislator who has shepherded the bill through the committee underscored its projected impact.

“The most important part of this bill deals with the fact that the existing law allows some officials to thumb their nose at the law. This bill changes that,” said Representative Peter V. Kocot, House chairman of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

The bill would also cap some fees for public records, make it easier for requesters to get documents electronically, and require agencies to have a point person to assist with requests. Those point people, legislators say, would help the public figure out how to get documents by finding the right person to contact.

Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, gave the bill a “thumbs up,” saying there’s a consensus that the current law is “seriously broken and this is a serious fix.”

But the redrafted version of the bill that emerged from the committee Thursday afternoon also weakens access to records in some ways. It moves the mandated response time for requests from within 10 days to within 15 days.

And it would allow officials to ask Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office, an arbiter of what records are public and what records are not, to allow municipalities and state agencies up to 15 days extra time beyond the standard 15 days to comply with requests in “exceptional circumstances.”

It would also allow officials to ask the secretary of state’s office for authorization to charge citizens for the cost of locating, reviewing, or segregating documents.

The bill defines “exceptional circumstances” as one or both of the following:

■ More than 15 requests from the same person in 30 days — but requests made in the public interest, such as many from the news media, are exempted.

■ A response that is expected to exceed 500 pages and is projected to take more than 20 hours to pull together.

Kocot said the provision is meant to protect town clerks in small communities who are sometimes “barraged with multiple requests over a small period of time.”

Wilmot, of Common Cause, said the addition of the “exceptional circumstances” provision is not a big loophole.

Wolfe, of the ACLU, said the goal all along has been a “balanced bill” and said the provision is an element of balance.

Notice they have to balance your right to privacy with national security, then balance their privacy with your right to know. Smells like tyranny to me.

But the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, still opposes the bill in its new form, said its executive director, Geoffrey C. Beckwith.

“We have grave concerns,” he said. “This legislation places an enhanced burden on cities and towns but reduces the amount they can get in reimbursement” from those requesting public records.

Who are they serving again?

He said that the bill would create a significant new “unfunded mandate” on communities, and that his organization would work to make sure changes to the public records law do not hit municipalities with extra costs.

The legislation does not change one part of the legal status quo: The state’s public records law does not apply to the Legislature or judicial branches and still would not, should the bill become law.

And yet they are crowing all about it above! Got everything they wanted!

And the bill would not close numerous other loopholes — such as the governor’s assertion that his office is exempt; or recent rulings saying police have unfettered discretion to withhold mug shots, arrest reports, and even names of officers accused of drunken driving.

Then it really is a NOTHING BILL, isn't it? It's a FEEL-GOOD PUBLIC RELATIONS MOVE to FOOL the PEOPLE!

Kocot said he hopes the Legislature will review the exemptions and decide whether to extend the bill to cover other branches of government once this bill becomes law.

“This is a first step,” he said.

The bill was referred to another committee, where it could be changed again. Then it could come to the House floor for debate and a vote, and then to the Senate. There’s no guarantee that it will become law.

But Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg indicated support.

“The speaker is supportive of modernizing the public records law of the Commonwealth,” said DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell.

As long as it doesn't really change anything.

“I strongly support updating our public records laws and I thank the members of the committee for putting out a strong bill,” Rosenberg said in a statement. “Making public documents more accessible helps build trust between government and the people we represent. The Senate is committed to swift action on this issue.”

Asked Governor Charlie Baker’s position on the bill, an aide said the governor would want to first see the final legislation, should it reach his desk.


A look who is already lobbying to pick it apart further:

"Lobbying picks up on proposed public records law" by Todd Wallack Globe Staff  July 21, 2015

A group that represents Massachusetts cities and towns is mounting a campaign to defeat a proposal to strengthen the notoriously weak Massachusetts public records law for the first time in more than four decades, saying communities can’t afford to pay for the changes.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association sent out an e-mail blast last week urging local officials to bombard Beacon Hill with objections to the bill.

“This bill is deeply flawed,” Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the lobbying group, told the Globe. “It would impose costly new unfunded mandates and burdens on cash-strapped cities and towns.” 

How can cities and towns be cash-strapped when we are in a slow and steady recovery? Unless....

In a sign the battle is heating up, several groups that support greater government transparency struck back Monday with their own calls to contact lawmakers in defense of the public records bill.

“Public records bill under attack! Help!” pleaded one e-mail from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Another from the New England First Amendment Coalition warned: “Legislation to improve access to Information at Risk.”

The bill is designed to reduce the cost for citizens to obtain documents while making it easier for them to get records in electronic form.

The e-mail volley came a day after the Globe reported data showing Massachusetts has one of the weakest public records laws in the country. State and local agencies often take months to respond to requests, deny them altogether, or demand outlandish fees, including $2.7 million that State Police demanded for a database on breathalyzer results. Several states provided the information for free or a nominal fee.

Though public records advocates have pushed for years to update the law, the efforts appear to finally have enough support to pass this year.

If leadership wants it, it gets done. Otherwise, you will be punished.

Roughly one-fourth of lawmakers have written or cosponsored legislation to strengthen the law. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo recently said the law should be modernized. And, after a joint committee endorsed a bill to upgrade the law, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg tweeted that the move is “long overdue.”

The bill is being reviewed by the House Ways and Means committee and could potentially be voted on by the full House as early as next week. Governor Charlie Baker has not taken a position on the bill, but other Beacon Hill officials have voiced support.

“The time has come to modernize and improve our public records system in Massachusetts,” said Attorney General Maura Healey in a statement Monday. “Massachusetts leads on so many important issues, and transparency in government should be one of them.”

But some public records advocates expressed concern Monday about the fate of the bill after the Massachusetts Municipal Association objected to the cost of complying with virtually every major aspect of the proposal — from limits on fees to fines for agencies that don’t comply.

For instance, the bill would bar agencies from charging to locate and redact documents, except in exceptional circumstances. And it would give citizens the right to recoup their legal fees if they successfully sue to obtain records.

“Bill Would Impose New Burdens and Unfunded Mandates on Communities,” read an e-mail from the association late last week. “Call Your Representatives and Senators Today!!”

Proponents responded with an e-mail rebutting the complaints. They noted that 47 other states already award attorneys’ fees and said some of the provisions — such as requiring agencies to designate a point person for handling public records requests — shouldn’t cost any money.

“Nearly every one of their objections is either inaccurate or wildly inaccurate,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, one of 40 groups supporting the legislation.

It is likely that lawmakers will make at least some changes to address concerns.

Getting watered down as I type.

Representative Peter Kocot, a Northampton Democrat, who authored the public records legislation, said he is happy to work with the Massachusetts Municipal Association to “perfect the bill as long as it promotes the public’s access to public records.”

And Beckwith said it is possible some of the complaints could be addressed by a minor wording change, such as clarifying what agencies must do to satisfy the 15-day deadline for responding to requests, though he had deeper concerns about some other provisions.

Senator Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who sponsored a similar measure in the Senate, said he still believes the bill is likely to be approved with some modifications. “I would hope that everyone could agree that the public records law in Massachusetts is seriously out of date and in need of being reformed,” Lewis said.

The legislation will not address one of the biggest complaints about the current law: that there are too many exceptions that allow agencies to withhold information. Massachusetts is the only state where the judicial branch, Legislature, and governor’s office all assert they are exempt from the law. And even when agencies are covered, many records are excluded. For instance, Massachusetts is the only state where jails can withhold records of the people they lock up.

Lewis said he hopes the Legislature will create a commission to study the exemptions and deal with them in a separate bill later on. “This is phase one of the reform bill,” he said.

In the meantime, Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he plans to move forward with his own ballot initiative to overhaul the public records law in case the Legislature doesn’t act.

Galvin said he needs to meet an Aug. 5 deadline to file the wording for the initiative, the first of many steps in putting an item on the ballot. But Galvin would still have nearly a year to cancel the effort if the Legislature approves a bill.

“My preference is for the Legislature to do it,” Galvin said, adding that he hopes the prospect of a ballot initiative will help push lawmakers to act. “There is reason for optimism, but there is also some reason for concern.”

This guy's words now ring hollow to me.


Certainly Obama and the federal government have set a better example?

"The Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press. The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged. 

It is literally a lawless regime.

The government’s new figures showed the Freedom of Information Act was more popular than ever. Citizens, journalists, businesses and others made a record 714,231 requests for information. The U.S. spent a record $434 million trying to keep up. It also spent about $28 million on lawyers’ fees to keep records secret. “This disappointing track record is hardly the mark of an administration that was supposed to be the most transparent in history,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to improve the Freedom of Information law. Their effort died in the House last year. The White House touted its success under its own analysis, and said under this calculation it released all or parts of records in 91 percent of requests — still a record low since President Barack Obama took office."

And they are “bragging about it!” 

Under the president’s instructions, the U.S. should not withhold or censor government files merely because they might be embarrassing, but federal employees last year regularly misapplied the law. In emails that AP obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration about who pays for Michelle Obama’s expensive dresses, the agency blacked-out a sentence under part of the law intended to shield personal, private information, such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers or home addresses. But it failed to censor the same passage on a subsequent page.

The sentence: “We live in constant fear of upsetting the WH (White House).” 

(Blog editor just shakes head)

The AP’s chief executive, Gary Pruitt, said the news organization filed hundreds of requests for government files. Records the AP obtained showed the FBI pressuring local police agencies to keep details secret about a telephone surveillance device called Stingray. The U.S. released its new figures during Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information." 

Yeah, let the sunshine in!

Look, up in the sky!

"FBI confirms it uses planes in surveillance; Program can track suspects’ cellphones by air" by Jack Gillum and Eileen Sullivan Associated Press  June 03, 2015

WASHINGTON — The FBI confirmed it is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology, hidden behind fictitious companies that front for the government.

No, no, no such thing! That's "conspiracy" stuff!

The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. The FBI said it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft. It also shields the identity of the aircraft so that suspects do not know they are being watched by the FBI.

Such usage had been the subject of previous media reports. In a recent 30-day period, the agency said, it flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states.

Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism, or intelligence investigations. But the program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.

US law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation, and PXW Services.

Even basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of reports from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

‘‘The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,’’ spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. He added the planes ‘‘are not equipped, designed, or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.’’

But the planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be used in prosecutions.

Some of the aircraft can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they are not making a call or in public. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers and gets phones to reveal basic subscriber information, is rare.

Yeah, sure.

Details confirmed by the FBI track closely with published reports since at least 2003 that a surveillance program might be behind suspicious-looking planes slowly circling neighborhoods.

See: Quincy Has Questions 

They just got answered. 

The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI and identified more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.

President Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance and has called for more transparency about spying after disclosures about classified programs.


He think anyone believes him?


Good thing in hands of private telecoms now:

"With its new Photos tool, Google gets another shot at our personal data" by Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff, June 4, 2015

I’ll always remember the visual grandeur of my daughter’s college graduation. And so will Google, because I took pictures of the event and posted them on Google Photos.

The search company’s free photo-storage offering has just gotten a major upgrade that could establish it as the first choice for online picture storage. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you feel about Google — and about privacy.

Google can use these personal photos­ to cull information about you, learn your likes and dislikes, and perhaps target you with ads.

See: NSA Unlocking Your Secrets 

Its search engine already analyzes the questions we ask, to better target us with advertisements that generate billions in revenue. And its Gmail service analyzes the contents of our personal messages for the same reason.

Now comes Google Photos. It doesn’t just stockpile your pictures. It scans them pixel by pixel, to identify people, places, and objects. Just by looking at your photo album Google could learn where you go and what you do.

The same technology helps Google find out nearly anything it wants to know about you.

Do you have kids? How many? Boys or girls? Where did you go on vacation? Eat at McDonald’s or Five Guys?

The more photos you shoot, the more Google will know.

In an e-mail to me, the company vowed it will not reuse our photos without explicit permission and will not share data collected from them.


Google didn’t say what it will do with the image data.

“We have no monetization plans at this time,” the company said in the e-mail.

But if it’s anything like what it does with the other information it collects on us, I expect Google to use the photo data to target us with advertisements.

Still, it’s a radical new method of mining personal data. And it ought to give us pause. We’ve accepted that our every keystroke is recorded and scrutinized. The more cautious among us understand that our digital photos carry little packets of metadata, revealing when and where they were shot. But soon companies and governments won’t need our camera’s metadata anymore. They’ll find out everything they need to know by just looking at the photos themselves.

Here’s what consumers get out of the deal: an easy way to store, share, and manage an unlimited number of photos and videos, without paying a cent — so long as the pictures are a generous 16 megapixels or less. Google’s image-recognition system will let you scour thousands of old photos to quickly find just the ones you want. For now, its search results are hit-or-miss, but already it’s accurate enough to be useful and delightful.

And it goes way beyond rival online image storehouses, such as Apple Inc.’s iCloud.

Google Photos has a facial-recognition feature, to help you quickly find favorite faces. Clicking on an image of my graduating daughter was like switching on a time machine. There she was on college move-in day in 2011, during one of her high school basketball games, and as a grade schooler, smiling up at me from the back seat of the car.

It also recognizes objects in photos and lets you search for them with keywords....

As Google improves its image recognition, it will add the results to the data it has collected on hundreds of millions of users. It will remember that I took shots of the Vegas Strip, of Thanksgiving dinners in Chicago and the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and the children’s choir at my church. That’s a lot of personal information embedded in a handful of photos. Spread it over a lifetime, and Google will know nearly everything about me.

As humans, we can’t help ourselves. Everything we do throws off vapor trails of information, but until recently it was only possible to capture a few wisps of the data. Google seems determined to grab it all....


I think we are losing our way, folks.

At least Obama will let you know what they want:

"US agencies struggle with FOIA requests; GOP lawmakers chide officials over backlog" by Stephen Ohlemacher Associated Press  June 04, 2015

WASHINGTON — Federal agencies are struggling to keep up with the growing number of requests for public information, raising questions in Congress about the Obama administration’s stance on transparency.

They have already been answered by actions. 

The backlog of unfulfilled requests for documents has doubled since President Obama took office in 2009, according to a recent report by the Justice Department. The number of requests also has spiked.

And just above I was told how great they are doing!

‘‘The president has committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,’’ said Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, ‘‘but that’s not the case’’ when it comes to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

His committee wrapped up two days of hearings on the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, backlog Wednesday, with some Republican members chastising federal officials responsible for disclosing public information.

‘‘You’re part of the problem,’’ said Representative Jody Hice, Republican of Georgia.

Officials from the departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury testified, as did an IRS official.

Several Democrats came to their defense, noting that budget cuts have left fewer workers to process the requests.

‘‘Logic tells you that when you have less people and you’ve got more demand, you’re going to have problems,’’ said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat.

I'm tired of the excuses when war budgets are booming, Israel is getting more aid, etc, etc.

The backlog of requests went from 77,000 in 2009 to nearly 160,000 last year, according to the Justice Department report. The increase coincided with a jump in requests for information, which went from almost 558,000 in 2009 to more than 714,000 last year.

At the same time, the number of staff working full time on information requests dropped from a high of 4,400 in 2011 to about 3,800 in 2014.

Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, said the administration has improved training and made some progress.

‘‘First, the majority of agencies — 72 out of 100 — were able to maintain low backlogs of fewer than 100 requests,’’ Pustay said. ‘‘Notably, 59 of these agencies had a backlog of less than 20 requests, including 29 that reported having no backlog at all.’’

Agencies with a backlog of more than 1,000 requests were required to come up with a plan to reduce them, she said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest chided Congress for exempting its records from the law.

They would feel right at home in Massachusetts.

‘‘In the last fiscal year, the administration processed 647,000 FOIA requests that we received from the public,’’ Earnest said. ‘‘I would note that that is 647,000 more FOIA requests than were processed by the United States Congress.’’


Why is he shifting the blame when his branch IS THE EXECUTIVE! That is part of their administrative job.



"Other states say enhanced records access not a burden" by Todd Wallack Globe Staff  July 28, 2015

Some Massachusetts officials have warned that a bill to overhaul the state’s public records law could drown cities and towns in a tidal wave of document requests and added duties, potentially forcing communities to cut back on vital services.

But six weeks after a similar law took effect in West Virginia, state and local officials alike say they’ve seen nothing of the sort.

“It hasn’t affected us so far and I haven’t heard of anyone else having an issue,” said Damita Johnson, the city clerk and treasurer in Oak Hill, W.Va., a community about 7,600 people. Indeed, Johnson said she hasn’t received a single public records request this month, let alone a flood.

Government watchdogs in Massachusetts and elsewhere say that the experience in other states shows that dire predictions about efforts to reform this state’s records laws are almost certainly hyperbole.

That's also a fancy way of saying playing your emotions while lying to you. That's what is hyperbole.

So what do they all have to hide? $elf-$erving corruption?


Moreover, municipal officials in other states with stronger public records laws than Massachusetts — from Florida to California — told the Globe they thought the cost of providing public records is both manageable and an important democratic responsibility.

What would they know about that up here?

The debate over the cost of public access comes amid growing complaints about Massachusetts’ 42-year-old public records law, widely considered one of the weakest in the country. In the Bay State, agencies routinely take months to respond to requests, arbitrarily refuse to release information, or demand thousands of dollars for basic records.

But the loudest complaints have been lodged by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which raised objections to virtually every major provision in the bill and helped prompt the Legislature to put off a House vote until they can modify the language to address the concerns.

Got a little Israel over here!

"The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, argued that the current version of the bill will pose too much of a financial and administrative burden on communities. “I think the delay makes sense,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the association, adding that the group is not against updating the law. “We are for a bill that communities can implement.”

Thus, a bill with reforms that don’t go far enough is going to get watered-down even more.

Geoffrey Beckwith, the association’s executive director, said his group doesn’t oppose the idea of updating the law, but he said the group is worried the legislation could be too costly for cities and towns to implement.

“There has got to be a way to balance it, because there are other services communities have to provide,” Beckwith said. 

The overwhelming stench of tyranny just roared through my nostrils. What other services that are being cut with departments filled with corruption? That is what baker is dealing with right now.

The Globe couldn’t find any studies that might indicate the cost to implement the law or how much more government agencies spend in states with stronger public records laws.

But some local officials in Massachusetts have expressed particular concern about provisions that would bar agencies from charging fees to locate and review documents, except in cases of unusually large information requests, and enable citizens to obtain fee waivers in some cases. They also dislike a provision capping fees for copies at 5 cents per page, rather than the current 20 to 50 cents.

The town clerk in Freetown, a Southeastern Massachusetts town about the same size of Oak Hill, W.Va., predicted the law would cut the agency’s revenue and encourage people to file a wave of ridiculous requests.

“I might as well change the sign on my office from Town Clerk to Public Records,” wrote the clerk, Jacqueline Brown, in an e-mail to other town clerks across the state. “If this law passes, the absurd requests we get from the news media for all communities will become ludicrous.”

In an interview, Brown said her office would comply with any changes, but “we don’t have to be happy about it.”

Un-flippin'-real. These are your public servants, and the Florida guy above is right. The arrogant "public servants" in Ma$$achu$etts see the citizen as $erving them as they $erve them$elves to tax loot.

Springfield has similar worries. The city collected $17,000 from 450 public records requests over the past year and a half. But a spokesman said the city is concerned its lawyers will have to do more work for less money if the bill becomes law — amounting to an “unfunded mandate” — though public records fees account for a negligible part of the entire $582 million city budget.

Then why are there less lawyers?

Still, clerks in states with stronger public records laws say they’ve been able to provide information to the public without having to slash other city services.

Oh, OTHER STATES can do it and Ma$$achu$etts can't, huh? 

What a $candalou$ $hame.

For instance, the city of Naples, Fla., said it has logged more than 1,000 requests for documents this year, but found the volume manageable. Instead of filtering every request through the legal office, as some cities do, Naples has trained workers throughout the city to provide documents to the public.

“We look at it as part of our job,” said Patricia Rambosk, the city clerk of Naples, which has a population of around 20,000. “There is someone in every department trained as a records coordinator.” And most of the records are provided free, Rambosk said, unless they require half an hour or more to collect or citizens want a large number of paper copies instead of a CD-ROM or e-mail.

Naples has speeded up the process by allowing citizens requesting records to fill out an online form, rather than sending a formal letter.

California law limits the amount that government agencies can charge for documents even more strictly than Florida. In California, government agencies are not permitted to charge any fees at all for locating and redacting documents. Instead, they can only charge for paper copies — and even that has become rarer as cities increasingly provide records via e-mail.

Wendy Klock-Johnson, the assistant city clerk in Sacramento, said she oversees a team of five people in her office dedicating to answering requests from the public for everything from city council minutes to memos. “It sounds large, but the city has 4,500 employees,” she said.

She said the city has mostly been able to avoid overly broad requests simply by talking to people and helping them zero in on the information they are really looking for. In Massachusetts, by contrast, agencies often send citizens bills for thousands of dollars or more for requests they regard as overly broad.

“The first thing we try to do is narrow the request,” Klock-Johnson said. “It’s pretty effective.” She could think of only a single instance when her office had to reject a public records request because it was too massive.

So far, West Virginia officials said they hadn’t heard of any abuses in the state since they overhauled their law last month.

The West Virginia law bans agencies from charging any labor fees to retrieve documents, broadens the definition of public records, and requires the state to create a centralized database of records requests. The Legislature approved the bill after complaints that some agencies were charging as much as $200 per hour to review and redact documents.

Some local governments and organizations had unsuccessfully urged Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to veto the measure. The West Virginia Association of Counties told the governor that “requests are very burdensome and time-consuming for offices with small staff.”

Patti Hamilton, executive director of the association, said there have been some minor issues since the bill became law, such as confusion over how much they can legally charge for paper copies.

But Tim Armstead, speaker of the state’s House of Delegates and a key sponsor of the bill, said he has “not heard from anyone expressing concerns about the fee reductions since the bill took effect.”

Kelvin E. Holliday, the county clerk in Fayette County, said he receives about one records request a month, same as he did before the new law. He said he usually lets citizens look through the files and pick out what they want copied.

“Everything in my office, other than employee files, is an open public record,” said Holliday. 

Not in the cradle of the American Revolution.


You know, don't let that get in the way of the over-the-top hyperbole from state officials.

For the record, this state sucks. I'm embarrassed to be a citizen and have lived my whole life here. Being the butt of the rest of the nation's jokes is well deserved.


Walsh administration slow to release public records

Walsh orders quick response to requests for public records

Why would the state capitol be any different?

Also see: 

Baker sets new rules for public records requests

Voters may have a say on boosting public records access

And then they will ignore us as usual.

State law should be made in the open