Editorial: Put the ‘public’ back in public information

The Massachusetts Lottery wants to be paid $3,695 before it releases information that should be free and available to the public.

A Freedom of Information Act request – which any citizen can file to get a copy of many govern- ment documents – has been met with foot-dragging at the state Lottery’s Braintree headquarters for the better part of a year.

The records request comes from a group of con- cerned citizens who are worried that the Lottery’s marketing and advertising strategy targets low- income media markets, where poorer residents tend to spend a greater share of their income on scratch tickets and other lottery products than do wealthier segments of society. That’s certainly been demon- strated in other states and it’s in the public interest to find out if the state Lottery is indeed preying on poor people.

Even if you accept the Lottery’s claim that most of the processing fee it wants — some $2,500 — is to duplicate DVDs and other electronic files, it doesn’t appear that the Lottery is genuinely inter- ested in complying with the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act request. The fact that the Lottery took six months just to send a cost estimate from the group Stop Predatory Gambling makes us skeptical — 10 days is the required turnaround time for a pub- lic records request under state law.

It shouldn’t be this hard for the public to get pub- lic information. But it too often is.
The state’s public records laws haven’t been updated since 1973, well before the era of email, the Internet, and easily accessible digital data. Several proposals on Beacon Hill would update those laws, and are long overdue.

One bill would require state agencies to post public documents online whenever possible, which would also cut down on administrative costs and time associated with processing public records requests (a frequent complaint among government clerks).

Another bill seeks to reduce the often prohibitive fees that requestors must pay to obtain records, and permit requestors to obtain attorneys’ fees if they have been denied access to public records without valid reasons. Another provision would update the pricing of public records requests – current regula- tions allow government workers to charge 20 cents for a photocopy and up to a dollar for a black and white printed sheet.

“The basic value behind this is my belief that open transparent government is essential for a healthy democracy,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, at a recent public hearing on the bills, which are before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

Another point raised at the hearing is that the Legislature exempts itself from the open meetings law – which just opens the door to the kind of cor- ruption scandals we’ve seen, including three con- secutive House Speakers convicted on felonies, and more recently, the indictments of two additional high-ranking state officials.

Some lawmakers at the hearing expressed the usual reservations about complying with the pub- lic records laws – specifically, that public employees are already overworked without having to fill pub- lic records requests.

That’s the kind of excuse-making that politicians and government bureaucrats have used to hide behind for decades, as well as the justification for throwing up cost impediments when citizens ask questions. Open, transparent government is essen- tial for a healthy democracy – and the public records law is a vital part of that transparency.

As Rosanna Cavanagh of the New England First Amendment Coalition put it: “A taxpaying member of this state should not be charged for the informa- tion their tax dollars have already paid to create.”

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