Getting records from your local agency can oftentimes bring headaches, long delays, and even lawsuits. Yet some municipalities in Massachusetts are proving the stereotypes wrong and releasing records in the blink of an eye.
In Massachusetts, statute says agencies are required to respond to requests within ten days. Although they are required to respond within that time frame, that doesn’t necessarily mean agencies have to fulfill requests within those ten days.
Many local agencies in the state host a small shop tasked in handling records requests. Dover Police Department is one of those agencies, with only one records officer on the job.
“We try with all requests to adhere to the letter and the intent of the new public records laws,” said DPD Chief Peter McGowan. “We are a small department. It is myself and one Officer designated as a records officer who does a phenomenal job.”
DPDt has seven requests filed through MuckRock with a 14% success rate. One request did generate a six-page report, but was withdrawn due to a $5 duplication fee. Despite these low odds, the agency does boast an average response time of less than a day, which in turn bodes well for requesters looking for quick turnaround.
Many of the agency’s requests generated no responsive records, while only two were flat-out rejected. No legal citations were provided in both of the rejections, but made clear that requests would not be released.
However, the 2016 state records reform now requires agencies to specifically include the exemption for which a request was denied.
“Where a custodian’s response to a record request made pursuant to 950 CMR 32.05(3) is that any record or portion of it is not public, the custodian, within ten days of the request for access, shall in writing set forth the reasons for such denial. The denial shall specifically include the exemption or exemptions in the definition of public records upon which the denial is based. When exemption (a) of M.G.L. c. 47 § 7, clause Twenty-sixth is relied upon the custodian shall cite the operational statute(s). Failure to make a written response within ten days to any request for access shall be deemed a denial of the request. The custodian shall advise the person denied access of his or her remedies under 950 CMR 32.00 and M.G.L. c. 66, § 10(b).” - *G.L. c. 66 § 10(b*)
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In addition, Boxford Town Clerk Robin Phelan is also a small shop, with every request fulfilled by the Town Clerk herself.
“This morning I recognized immediately what department would have the information and forwarded that email to the department,” said Phelan. “Some departments are quicker to respond than others, mostly due to the amount of information requested or how they have the information stored.”
According to MuckRock data, the Boxford Town Clerk has a 100% success rate in completing requests. The town fulfilled two requests and released records in less than a month at no charge. Phelan noted that she hasn’t had to charge anyone for processing their requests.
“I really haven’t had the need because most of the requests we receive are easily retrievable and we have software where we store past requests. Anyone can make requests and we can collect previous information and send it. We also try to put as much as we can on the website,” added Phelan.
Boxford gets a handful of requests every month, about 10-12 according to the town. Although a small sample size, Phelan says the best thing requesters can do to expedite their request is be as clear as possible.
“Some requests are just so obtuse. We had a request where they wanted every email with the word “school” for the past five years,” said City of Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke.
Gardner’s Mayor’s Officer has fulfilled two MuckRock requests in less than a day. A feat that’s common for the office according to the Hawke.
“It depends on the request itself. If it’s 17 files and 400 emails over the span of five years, that takes some time to get IT to pull that. But if it’s something we have in a drive then we send it out pretty quickly,” added Hawke.
Additionally, Hawke noted that most of the requests he receives aren’t necessarily formal records requests. Oftentimes, it’s just constituents asking for information.
“We are so open. Everything we have is on the website,” said Hawke.
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