Pub­lic has right to know what law­mak­ers do

Boston Herald - - OPINION -

Why should the state body that en­acts laws be ex­empt from laws grant­ing greater pub­lic scru­tiny? Mas­sachusetts, known for its re­stric­tive, ar­chaic pub­lic-records laws, fi­nally passed re­form leg­is­la­tion in 2016, the first up­date to those statutes in nearly 40 years. How­ever, those im­prove­ments to pub­lic ac­cess per­tained only to the work­ings of mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment. They didn’t ad­dress the long-stand­ing ex­cep­tion en­joyed by the Leg­is­la­ture, gov­er­nor and ju­di­ciary. And when it comes to ac­cess­ing the deal­ings of its law­mak­ers, Mas­sachusetts re­mains squarely in the mi­nor­ity. Leg­is­la­tures in vir­tu­ally ev­ery other state, in­clud­ing our New Eng­land neigh­bors, are sub­ject to pub­lic-records laws. So, we were at least guard­edly op­ti­mistic when the Leg­is­la­ture at­tempted to study ways to pry open the seal of pri­vacy. The im­pe­tus for that step came out of that records-re­form leg­is­la­tion. But in­stead of tak­ing on the three-headed ob­sta­cle to the pub­lic’s right to know, law­mak­ers set up a com­mis­sion of sep­a­rate Se­nate and House pan­els to con­sider whether to ex­pand the law to the Leg­is­la­ture, ju­di­ciary and gov­er­nor’s of­fice; these bod­ies sup­pos­edly set about ex­am­in­ing and hope­fully find­ing so­lu­tions for ac­cess­ing these records. But in the end, nei­ther one could reach con­sen­sus on po­ten­tial leg­is­la­tion or new rules, and the com­mis­sion dis­banded with­out ren­der­ing any for­mal rec­om­men­da­tions. “I was re­ally dis­ap­pointed we didn’t come to con­sen­sus,” Rep. Jen­nifer Ben­son of Lunen­burg, who co-chaired the com­mis­sion on the House side, told the State House News Ser­vice. “My staff and I and the House mem­bers, as well as all the mem­bers of the com­mis­sion, re­ally took this se­ri­ously, did a lot of work and re­search around this is­sue, and tried to un­der­stand ev­ery facet of not only the con­cept of pub­lic records, but ex­actly how we can make this more ro­bust and ac­ces­si­ble and trans­par­ent to the pub­lic and ways specif­i­cally to do that, and un­for­tu­nately we just did not agree on ways to do that.” Ben­son in­di­cated the Leg­is­la­ture faces con­straints con­tained in our state con­sti­tu­tion against ex­tend­ing the open-records law to the gov­er­nor’s of­fice and ju­di­ciary. How­ever, some­how the rest of our repub­lic has man­aged to nav­i­gate those muddy le­gal wa­ters. We re­al­ize it took four decades to at­tain any sem­blance of pub­lic-records re­form, so we shouldn’t be sur­prised that law­mak­ers have reser­va­tions about open­ing the doors of their in­ner work­ings to pub­lic view. We’d hoped that rev­e­la­tions con­cern­ing the House speaker’s dis­clo­sure of that cham­ber’s use of nondis­clo­sure and nondis­par­age­ment agree­ments with­out the knowl­edge of fel­low law­mak­ers might move them to see the need to act, but even that slight ap­par­ently proved in­suf­fi­cient to change the in­su­lar cul­ture on Bea­con Hill. De­spite these set­backs, we shouldn’t just sit back and al­low the Leg­is­la­ture to con­duct busi­ness as usual. Ef­forts to open up the deal­ings of the ju­di­ciary and gov­er­nor’s of­fice can be put on the back burner for now, but the news me­dia should de­mand that law­mak­ers re­spond to the pub­lic’s right for greater ac­cess. And in­stead of form­ing a leg­isla­tive group that looks in­ward, we pro­pose fol­low­ing the same pro­ce­dure as was done when in­ves­ti­gat­ing how other states im­ple­mented the roll­out of recre­ational pot. There were only a few states from which to choose for that as­sign­ment. But leg­is­la­tors have the pick of just about ev­ery other state in the union to find ways to shine a stronger bea­con of light on the State House.

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