The Massachusetts public records law (MGL Ch 66 §10) provides that the custodian of any such record shall respond to a request for a copy of that record within ten days. It also provides that (in most cases ) such a copy shall cost five dollars for the first six pages and fifty cents for each additional page. If a search is required to provide such a record, the requester shall “pay the actual expense of such search.”
A test co-sponsored by The Boston Globe and WCVB television found that 58% of the cities and towns in Massachusetts failed to comply with the law.
The audit — conducted by a journalism class taught at Northeastern by Mike Beaudet, an investigative reporter for WCVB-TV (Channel 5) — showed just how difficult it can be to obtain information promptly under the current law.
The class mailed requests to the city or town clerk and police chief for all 351 cities and towns on Oct. 20. In most cases, the students followed up with an e-mail in early November if they didn’t receive an acknowledgment that the request had been received.
The requests were for reports showing how much municipal workers earned last year and “use of force” policies describing when police officers can use their weapons.
Nearly a quarter of the communities took more than 40 days or never responded at all to the requests. More than a dozen outright refused to provide the documents for legally dubious reasons, such as protecting the privacy of public employees. Others created obstacles to obtaining the information, such as peppering the students with questions about why they wanted the records — which is frowned on by the secretary of state — or requiring students to pick up documents in person — which violates state regulations. Two dozen communities asked for more than $100 for the payroll report, including Spencer, which demanded $1,440.
The poor test results suggest that Massachusetts’ famously weak public records law is matched by equally weak compliance — many government workers seem to take the 10-day legal deadlines for responding as little more than a suggestion rather than a requirement.
And why wouldn’t they? Public officials in Massachusetts face no real penalties for withholding documents or missing deadlines. The attorney general’s office can’t recall a single case in which it has ever prosecuted anyone for violations since the law was passed in 1973.
Lawmakers are debating legislation to overhaul the statute for the first time in four decades, but it’s unclear how far they will go to strengthen the law because of objections from some government officials and their lobbyists.
House legislators scaled back efforts to make public records more accessible after the Massachusetts Municipal Association complained that the bill would impose costly new responsibilities on cities and towns.