Year in FOIA 2018: Sunshine Spotlight: Massachusetts

Year in FOIA 2018: Sunshine Spotlight: Massachusetts

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

It’s been two years since Massachusetts officials decided to revise the state’s public records law. 2016 was the first time Bay State requesters saw a decrease in fees, a change in agency response times, and other notable changes to the records law. But a quick look at this year’s most notable Massachusetts public record stories shows state records law is still flawed and in need of more change.

Earlier this year we took a look at the highest public records fee in each state. A Massachusetts public records request saw a whopping $312,846 fee to the Bridgewater State Hospital (Massachusetts Corrections). That’s more than the average cost of living in most states. In addition, agencies like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office are also charging high fees for the labor involved to retrieve records.

High fees weren’t the only issue this year as requesters still found barriers in the state’s highest forms of government. The Governor, Judiciary, and Legislative branches are all exempt from public records law, no exceptions. Access is completely barred from these areas, but a Special Legislative Committee on Public Records was created this year to look into the feasibility of lifting that barrier. The committee is set to have a set of recommendations that would help unlock access to these branches of government.

Even more tedious is the fact that the Supervisor of Records has no authority over her own rulings. That means that even if you do win your appeal and agencies still try to withold records, the Supervisor of Records has to call upon the state’s Attorney General to enforce her own rulings. This year, the Supervisor of Records found herself referring a case to the AG’s office after three District Attorney’s in the state refused to comply with her decision to release the records. For the first time in state’s history, Massachusetts AG sued Worcester, Plymouth, and Cape and Islands District Attorney Offices for not complying with the Supervisor of Records decision.

With a lack of enforcement from the Supervisor of Records, state requesters this year have found it difficult to obtain records from law enforcement agencies in the state, which are notorious for breaking records law. Police departments continue to cite a number of exemptions for not releasing records, including privacy and investigatory exemptions. In addition, Medford Police Department has yet to respond to MuckRock records requests even after our own Sarika Ram paid a visit to the department.

Even more, 14 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, sued the Boston Police Department this year for records on the Department’s “gang” database after BPD refused to release those records.

It’s clear that Massachusetts requesters faced significant barriers in 2018, but they are ready to fight for oversight. From blocked branches of government, to strict police departments, high fees, and lawsuits, 2018 hasn’t been the easiest year for public records law in the state. That’s why we need your help next year to shine a light on Bay State public records struggles.

Make sure to share your Massachusetts records story and sign-up for our Sunshine Spotlight: Massachusetts newsletter to get your state records story come 2019.

Happy filing in the new year!

MuckRock’s Year in FOIA: 2018

How our transparency community grew this year

Biggest stories of the year

The year in Projects

State law rundown

The top five top five lists of the year

Image via US National Archives Flickr