(BOSTON) – Representative Garrett J. Bradley (D-Hingham) joined his colleagues in the Legislature to pass a bill on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 updating public records laws and enhancing accountability measures.
The legislation, which received unanimous votes in both the House and Senate and was signed by Governor Baker on Friday, June 3, 2016, creates a standardized timeframe and process in which requested documents must be produced and ensures that judicial remedies can be sought.
“This bill will increase transparency and the use of technology without adding what amounts to an unfunded mandate on to our cities and towns”, said Rep. Bradley. “I am grateful to all my colleagues in the Legislature for working together to provide a necessary update to the state’s public records laws.”
This consensus legislation represents the first update to state’s public records law in more than 40 years. Under the bill, Massachusetts will have standardized processes through which the public can access records and guidelines for the fees associated with obtaining documents. Additionally, the legislation requires agencies – and municipalities to a feasible extent – to provide commonly requested public records online.
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 specific reasons for withholding, or give a reasonable timeframe in which the agency will produce the records. Agencies must comply within 15 days, and municipalities must comply within 25 days. Upon a showing of good cause, a single extension of not more than 20 business days for an agency or 30 days for a municipality may be granted.
To ensure that taxpayers can reasonably access records, agencies may not charge for the first four hours of employee time to search for, compile, segregate, redact or reproduce records. Municipalities may not charge for the first two hours of employee time unless they have a population of 20,000 or less. If a records officer fails to respond to a request within ten business days, no fee may be charged.
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. This legislation also permits punitive damages, which will be no less than $1,000 and no more than $5,000, to be awarded if the court finds an agency or municipality did not act in good faith.