House Passes Legislation to Improve Public Records Laws

BOSTONRepresentative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) joined her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representative to pass legislation that updates the state’s public records laws and enhances accountability measures. This legislation enumerates a timeframe and process in which requested documents must be produced and ensure that judicial remedies can be sought.
“This is a comprehensive and long overdue piece of legislation that will provide a standardized process for the public to attain access to records,” said Representative Benson. “As it has been more than 40 years since our public record laws have been updated, I gladly co-sponsored this bill at the beginning of the legislative session, and was proud to join my colleagues in passing it before the Legislature recessed for holiday break.”
This legislation requires municipalities and agencies to designate a records access officer to assist the public and facilitate timely responses. 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 a fee estimate, and specify why more time is needed. The bill caps the amount of time that may be taken for a response. Agencies must comply within 60 days, and municipalities must comply within 75 days. An extension may only be granted one time.
 
To ensure that the public can access records for a reasonable fee, agencies and municipalities will be prevented from charging for the initial time spent responding to a request, unless that request exceeds two hours for municipalities and four hours for agencies. 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.
 
With changes included in the bill, records must be provided electronically, and agencies must post commonly requested public records online. Records access officers will keep track of requests, response times, and fees charged.
 
This bill follows the launch of free public WiFi to the State House and the Legislature’s updated website, which received the Online Democracy Award, initiatives intended to expand public engagement.