A transparent government remains a top-priority for lawmakers across the country. But what counts as delivering on that transparency continues to differ amongst state legislatures.
Despite varying opinions, many state leaders have decided to take a bipartisan approach to solving the issue. With lawmakers more amenable to reaching across the aisle, many of the bills authored in response to public records issues seem to stem from the public’s own struggles and pressures to enhance the law.
In 2015 Massachusetts transparency advocates and journalists, including MuckRock, rallied together to demand changes to the state’s public records law. Untouched since its enactment in 1975, requesters across the Bay State railed against law’s antiquated and restrictive nature, which the Center for Public Integrity gave an D+ grade for public access to information. As a result of public outcry, landmark bills were written and considered in an effort to promote access to records in digital form, require agencies to have a “records officer,” lower records fees, and require public agencies to pay requester’s attorney’s fees when access to records is wrongly denied. These efforts and push for change from requesters led to the state’s 2016 public records reform, which incorporated major changes to the law. Although successful in addressing some long-overdue flaws, many requesters in Massachusetts felt the reform fell far short of actually delivering a better public records law.
Similar to Massachusetts requesters, Washington groups prevented a bill from passing committee because of its shortfalls. State Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) introduced a bill aiming to extend the records act to the state’s legislature. The bill would have removed the legislatures exemption to the public records act since 1972. Although a bill that would have garnered the usual support from open government advocates, transparency groups in the state widely opposed it. Those in opposition cited its three “narrowly-tailored” set of exemptions for the government branch, which included protecting communications between lawmakers and staff discussing legislation and preliminary draft bills. Organizations took their concerns to a public hearing on the matter, which resulted in Pedersen pulling the bill two weeks later.
But even when the legislation passes, not all parties remain content with the outcome causing strains in the public records system. In California, transparency advocates celebrated a huge victory for access to police misconduct records, which had been blocked for 40 years. Former California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB-1421, but now the law faces extreme backlash from police unions and other law enforcement agencies who say sharing the records violates privacy laws. As a result, many of these requests have been delayed. Plus, a lack of enforcement from the state level has left requesters to impose the law on their own, which oftentimes results in matters being taken to court.
Also in California, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendora) introduced AB 700, which aimed to exempt information relating to a researcher or their research at a California university or community college. According to Friedman , her goal was to protect researchers from harassment from corporations and stern abuse of records law. However, those opposing the bill said the legislation would keep abuse secret, such as research misconduct and fraud, sexual harassment in scientific setting, misallocation of funds, and other administrative cover-ups that would not come to light under the California Public Records Act. Due to the widespread opposition, the bill has been halted for further review.
Overall, we’re seeing policy makers make big strides to try to reform public records law and address ambiguities within the system. California had a big win this year in unlocking police misconduct records, but continues to face problems in the actual release of those records. Similarly, Massachusetts public records reform opened the door to better government access, but still falls short in bringing access to the state’s highest levels of government. However, Washington state has seen a major push to extend the state’s records law to its legislature, but transparency advocates are looking for strong legislation to provide full access into the branch of government. While it’s true that lawmakers are leaning into transparency groups for public records law reforms, a failure to pass robust and extensive transparency legislation continues to delay much needed change.
Image via Joint Base San Antonio