BOSTON (AP) – The Massachusetts House is gearing up to debate a public records bill that would set compliance deadlines, establish fees, expand enforcement authority and possibly address what critics say are outdated laws that burden the free flow of public information.
The bill, released late Tuesday, requires public agencies and municipalities to comply with records requests within 10 business days. If they can’t meet the deadline, the bill sets up a process that would allow agencies up to 60 days and municipalities up to 75 days to fully comply with requests.
The legislation also limits fees at 5 cents per page for black-and-white copies and caps the hourly rate for state employees needed to comply with requests at $25 per hour. For municipal workers, the rate would be tied to the rate attributed to the lowest paid employee with the skills needed to respond to the request.
The bill also allows judges to award “reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs” to those seeking public records if the court rules in their favor.
The House is expected to debate the bill Wednesday, the chamber’s last formal session for the year. The Senate has yet to take any action on public records legislation. Senate President Stan Rosenberg has said he wants to see what emerges from the House first.
Under the House bill, the state attorney general would have expanded authority to enforce the public records law, specifically by allowing her to intervene in any action and seek civil penalties.
Another section of the legislation would require that each agency or municipality designate at least one employee as a “records access officer.” The employee would be responsible for coordinating responses to public records requests. The officers also would oversee the delivery of electronic records in an electronic format if requested.
Records access officers would be authorized to waive fees if the request is determined to be in the public interest or if those seeking the records lack financial means.
Several groups have been waiting for the final version of the House bill.
Backers of the overhaul – led by a coalition of public watchdog groups, civil rights advocates and Massachusetts newspaper publishers – say serious changes are needed. They, and others, have long complained that the state’s public records law is outdated and cumbersome, often forcing document seekers to endure long waits and to pay exorbitant fees for access to records.
Other groups, including the Massachusetts Municipal Association, say that while changes are needed, they don’t want the bill to go too far. Association officials say they want assurances that any changes to the law won’t amount to unfunded mandates.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.