Editorial: The Need For Public Records Reform

While Massachusetts lawmakers continue to dawdle instead of passing the first substantial update to the state’s public records laws since 1973, news stories continue to expose state and local officeholders thwarting the public’s right to know how government works.

One example is the recent disclosure that in the final weeks of Mitt Romney’s term as governor in 2007, his aides purged the server of the Governor’s office and purchased office hard-drives and took them home. Any record of e-mails sent and received by Romney and his staff when he was in office were erased.

Romney, now running for president and promising a transparent White House, makes the self-serving assertion that no laws were broken in his State House e-purge. That may be true, in part, because our public records laws still fail to cover the Governor or Legislature. Nor have they been updated to reflect the digital age.

Existing public record laws go back to 1973, well before the era of e-mail, the Internet, and easily accessible digital data.

Several bipartisan proposals on Beacon Hill would update those laws. They seek to prohibit excessive copying charges on public record requests, to ensure that state agencies comply with citizen Freedom of Information Act requests, to update what kind of public records must be retained, and to expand coverage of the public records law to the executive and legislative branches.

There is ample proof that greater transparency is needed on Beacon Hill. Reminders include the downright corrupt – such as former House Speaker Sal DiMasi recently reporting to jail his conviction on conspiracy, fraud and extortion charges – to the suspiciously secretive, such as the recent passing of a bill legalizing casino gambling that was hashed out behind closed doors, out of the public view.

Open, transparent government is essential for a healthy democracy – and a strong public records law is a vital part of that transparency.

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