I testified today in a hearing before Massachusetts’ Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight regarding two pieces of public records reform which the committees are considering. The proposed legislation brings some much-needed updates to Massachusetts’ public records law, and the only objections I heard being voiced today were concerns of cost. I’ll try and address those concerns in another post in the future, but I wanted to at least share my testimony, which includes a number of never-before-seen stats Mitch helped pull the day before.

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak out on behalf of H.1736/S.1575 & H.1737/S.1576. My name is Michael Morisy and I’m the co-founder and president of MuckRock.com, a web service that makes it easier for individuals, reporters, interest groups and more to file, track and share Freedom of Information Requests at the state, local and federal level.

As of this morning, we’ve helped file over 700 public records requests, working with media organizations like the Boston Globe, WGBH, the Boston Phoenix and more. In Massachusetts alone, at the state and local level, we’ve helped file and track 114 requests with 66 different agencies, giving us a very good understanding of not just individual cases, but how the system is currently working throughout the Commonwealth.

And while we have found many agencies and individuals within those agencies helpful, courteous and timely, this is sadly the exception, not the rule.

While public record laws currently permit a 10-day record for responsiveness, 34 days is the average response time. And that doesn’t average in the requests that we are still waiting on responses for: We have some requests that have been outstanding for just under a year.

Some notable cases:

  • An independent reporter asked for records relating to a government funding the Bay State Banner. 11 months and 1 week later, despite repeated follow up calls and confirmation that the request was received, no response has yet been returned.
  • In the wake of a high-profile suicide, a request filed for the Suffolk County Jail’s Suicide Prevention Policies was acknowledged and never answered. It was filed a year ago.
  • A request for special parking permits given to officials and friends of officials in the City of Somerville was initially granted  – only to be later denied after officials flatly stated the information was not accessible in their own database.
  • A request for lottery records, the examination and publication of which were clearly in the public interest, was submitted and then took 128 days before a response was finally received – stating that the request would cost $3,695 to begin processing. Why it took 128 days to not fulfill a request is beyond my scope of comprehension.
  • A recent request, filed by a reporter for the Boston Phoenix, was ignored. I called up the state-level department in question and was told flatly, “My department doesn’t accept public records requests.” I asked to speak to a manager or someone I could talk to about this, was told that there was no one I could talk to in that department but I could try another department. I went through this cycle three times, and while the request was eventually acknowledged, it is still unfulfilled a month after filing.

Many other requests have been stifled by fees estimated in the tens of thousands, by administrative runarounds, by improper application of exemptions and, most often, by simple silence on the part of this agency. I believe the provisions of this bill would go a long ways towards improving the public’s access to government information, increasing transparency and trust while also helping agencies better understand their own rules and regulations.

Thank you for your time.

Bay State Banner Request:

http://www.muckrock.com/foi/view/boston-ma/decision-making-process-related-to-funding-for-bay-state-banner/108/

Suffolk County Suicide Prevention Policies:

http://www.muckrock.com/foi/view/suffolk-county-ma/suffolk-county-jail-suicide-watchprevention-policies/76/

Parking Permit:

http://www.muckrock.com/foi/view/somerville-ma/parking-permit-list/162/

Lottery Records:

http://www.muckrock.com/foi/view/massachusetts/massachusetts-lottery-records/260/

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