So you won your Massachusetts public records appeal - now what?

Even with the Supervisor on your side, you might still be in for multiple rounds against disclosure

Written by Beryl Lipton
Edited by JPat Brown

Ahead of a recent revision of the Massachusetts public records law, one of the most common complaints amongst reform advocates was the lack of “teeth” in the long-standing 1970s version.

As it stands until the new law goes into effect on January 1, given a rejection or some inappropriate dismissal by an agency, one can appeal to the Office of the Secretary of State, who also serves as the Supervisor of Public Records. If that doesn’t work, he can kick it to the State Attorney General, who can take “whatever measures he deems necessary to insure compliance.”

Or no real measures at all.

Of course, an individual could sue, but not until the most recent iteration of the law has the plaintiff even had the possibility of recouping lawyers costs. Still no guarantee, though. Meaning that time and resources can continue to be wasted on boring back-and-forths. And then the grotesque black holes of bureaucracy sometimes take on an added Groundhog Day-esque tint, like in the case of MuckRock user Phil Shannon.

In October 2014, Mr. Shannon submitted a request to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) requesting its evaluations of human rights abuses by China CNR Corporation Limited, a Beijing-based company that had recently won a bid to build almost 300 new subway cars for the Boston lines. An article had reported that an MBTA review found no such abuses, so Mr. Shannon wanted to see what that review had entailed.

The next month, his request was rejected.

And he appealed.

And he won.

Nonetheless, no response was heard from the agency for months.

And when they finally returned a status update on the request, the response was eerily familiar.

Though they did cite what kinds of documents they were withholding.

This is after literally two years of waiting.

The next step involves revisiting the Secretary of State’s office, which could take it upon itself to review the materials, which the MBTA claims only consist of a single legal memo.

In the new law, the AG can compel compliance by filing an action in court. It’s a welcome accountability measure, but also underlines the lengths that must be gone to prod our own government agencies to abide the law.

So, perhaps there is only one document. And maybe the Secretary will find that despite the improper initial rejection, the papers were, at least, properly withheld. But not having enough teeth often means it takes an awful long time to chew it over.


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY 3.0