What I learned about MA’s Public Records Laws from the Olympics

Jonathan Cohn is a member of Progressive Massachusetts and co-founder of No Boston 2024, a group that helped to defeat Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. No Boston 2024 used public records requests to bring new information to the public debate and to shed light on what was happening behind closed doors. They have three requests still pending.

Whether or not you were in favor of the Olympics, this work by citizen activists was an impressive victory, and learning from their grassroots organizing is key for future battles to build a more progressive commonwealth. Jonathan explains below how his experiences highlight the urgent need for public records law reform. Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanCohn.

TAKE ACTION TODAY TO PUSH FOR PUBLIC RECORDS REFORM -- TIME IS RUNNING OUT


Housing_Homelessness_Panel.jpgThe saying goes that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And we saw this clearly with Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics.

When decision-making is happening behind closed doors, public records requests offer citizens a way to pry open the door. By submitting public records requests (and having dogged follow-up), we were able to bring to light the conflicts of interest, double-talk, and misinformation in how the bid was being presented and sold to the public, and the ways in which public and private were increasingly becoming intertwined.

During this process, however, I learned almost as much about how broken our public records law is as I did about the Olympic bid.

Here are a few problems I regularly encountered in my quest to pry open this door:

Cost: Public officials have the discretion to decide whether or not to charge for public records requests, and how much to charge if they do. Sometimes, they do waive the fees, but when they don’t, the costs can be prohibitive.

We amassed about $4,000 in fees from various public records requests over just a few months. Raising such funds takes time and energy, and it drags out the period between when a request is made and when documents are finally received. And these fees often apply whether or not a record is provided. If an agency decides to withhold certain records, they can still charge you for them. I’ve had requests where over half of the relevant records were withheld.

Citizen journalism is an important complement to the work of the press, but your average citizen doesn’t have as deep of pockets as a newspaper. Finding out what is going on behind closed doors shouldn’t be a luxury good.  

Accessibility: We’re a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, but you wouldn’t know that from how some departments/agencies handle public records. When MassDOT finally turned over documents for one of my requests, they sent it in hard copy—all 191 pages. Thankfully, MuckRock was able to scan the documents and convert them into a pdf, but that burden shouldn’t fall on the requestor.

In response to my requests, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, unlike MassDOT, did actually provide documents in electronic form…but they sent them in .mbox form, constructing another time-consuming barrier to access. 

This information is public information, and it should come in forms that the public can easily access.

Time: Although some public officials might dissemble or delay when dealing with public records requests, even the most well-meaning of officials may have difficulties. That’s because records requests are often handled by officials who are busy with a variety of other responsibilities. As fulfilling requests is not their primary responsibility, they will constantly get sidetracked by other work, dragging out what is often already a slow process. This is not fair to either officials or requestors.  Having designated staff to handle records requests would help agencies do their work more efficiently and bring in the sunlight on a much faster basis.  

Here in Massachusetts, we pride ourselves as being an example for other states in progressive policy—from marriage equality to health care to combating climate change. But when it comes to public records law, we lag far behind other states. The Center for Public Integrity recently awarded Massachusetts an F on public records access. We ranked 40th, behind states like Mississippi and Arkansas.

It’s past time to change that. The public records reform bill introduced this legislative session will help address the problems I outlined above, along with many others.

Time to let the sunshine in.


SEND A MESSAGE TO THE LEGISLATURE: STOP DELAYING -- REFORM PUBLIC RECORDS NOW.


 

 

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