Shortly after noon last Friday, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law the first major overhaul of the state’s public records law in more than 40 years.
Along with requiring state agencies, cities, and towns to designate records officers to field requests, the new law requires public agencies to provide requested public records within 10 business days, while allowing for extensions beyond that deadline, capped at five business days from the original request for a state agency, and 15 for a municipality.
Public agencies are encouraged under the law to make electronic public records more readily available to requesters if they are already in electronic formats, and to limit the costs public entities may charge for making copies or for employee time spent assembling records.
“I think this will require all of us to up our game a bit,” Gov. Baker said after inking his signature on the bill.
A former selectman in Swampscott, Gov. Baker said he was pleased that the law does not unduly burden municipalities, especially small towns that rely on volunteer record custodians. “I do believe at this point that what you’ve done is produced a document that will make it possible for us all to dramatically improve our performance in this space, but also will be done in a way that I think at the local level, especially cities and towns, will be able to comply with it,” the governor said. “There’s going to be some stretch activity for many of them, but I believe they’ll be able to get there.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the new law will help foster trust in government. “This is a really important foundational and first step to ensuring government transparency and accountability to the public,” she said. “What people want is a sense that they can trust the government, that government is accountable, that government is open.”
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said in a statement, “As the cradle of liberty, Massachusetts should lead the way on openness and transparency, not lag behind the rest of the nation. The law Governor Baker just signed will help us catch up and begin to take our rightful place among those states that highly value and promote transparency.”
Asked whether the new law goes far enough, Governor Baker said, “For now, I think, absolutely,” and he said he would be open to discussing further public records reforms, to include the governor’s office and the Legislature, under the provisions of the new law.
“We’ll comply with whatever rules are established by the Legislature and the courts,” he said. “If that’s something that at some point becomes part of the larger conversation, we’d be happy to have that conversation.”