Monday, October 27, 2008

A Call for a Public Access Task Force

I tend to equate the suggestion, "Appoint a committee," with "Avoid a decision." But the more I read about the need for reform of Massachusetts' open-government laws, the more frustrated I get at lawmakers' lack of action. I now believe that this is one problem that appointing a committee could actually help fix. It should be a bipartisan task force, appointed by the governor, with a mandate to study the state's open meetings and public records laws and recommend a concrete slate of reforms. The committee should include state and local government officials, journalists, citizens, lawmakers, law enforcement officials, legal advocates and other interested parties.

Colman Herman's piece in the current issue of CommonWealth convincingly makes the case for the need for reform of the public records law. For the last two legislative sessions (that's four years) I and many others have presented the same case for the open meeting law. As I've argued in op-eds in The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe, in blog posts and in testimony before the legislature, the Massachusetts open meeting laws are among the weakest in the nation, with no consequences for the individual officials who break the law.

The need for reform is hardly breaking news. In addition to my law practice, I am executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. When I first took that job in 2004, the first major issue the membership asked me to tackle was public access. Their reporters and readers had complained about the escalating decrease in access ever since 9/11. We decided to focus on open meetings because that was where we saw the greatest need -- or, put another way, where we saw the least compliance with the law. We feared that pursuing an agenda of more comprehensive reform would meet multiple roadblocks.

But as Herman's piece and other recent developments help illustrate, public records and open meetings are not separate issues to be dealt with in different legislative bundles. My sense -- I need to double check my facts on this -- is that most states' laws address access to meetings and access to records in a single legislative scheme. This makes sense. It makes the applicable laws easier to find, easier to understand and easier to enforce. Perhaps this might be the first issue that this task force should take up.

Our state's public access laws are antiquated, unwieldy and often ineffective. If we are to achieve meaningful reform of these laws, there must be thorough study and thoughtful deliberation. That level of careful study rarely occurs in the course of a legislative session. If it is ever going to happen, I have come to believe, it must be through an officially sanctioned task force. Let the task force fashion a reform bill and hope the legislature then has the guts to act on it. In a state that has too long opted to avoid any decisions on public-access reforms, maybe appointing a committee would break the deadlock.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read the Illinois Open Meetings Act recently.

I always assumed that documents and meetings were dealt with in two clear legislative packages: one for meetings, the other to address FOIA requests (access to records, as you put it).
Then again, I've only really read the Illinois statutes and some of the federal. So, I'm only basing my opinion on what I've read.
A good question though. I'm interested to know what answers come out of the questions you're posing on your blog lately.