- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - A coalition of public watchdog groups, civil rights advocates and Massachusetts newspaper publishers is calling for quick action on legislation aimed at overhauling a state public records law they say hasn’t been updated in more than 40 years.

Momentum for a public records bill that appeared headed for a vote in the Legislature has slowed. At the end of September, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he expected the Massachusetts House to vote on the measure within a week or two.

As yet, no vote has been scheduled.

Supporters want the state’s existing public records law updated to reflect advances in technology, require state agencies to designate a single person to handle records requests, have fees for obtaining public records reflect actual costs, and provide attorneys’ fees when agencies unlawfully block access to public information.

Supporters say with a legislative break looming, they’re increasingly worried the bill is getting bogged down.

“We know legislators have heard a lot from vocal opponents of reform,” the Massachusetts Freedom of Information Act Coalition said in a statement Thursday. “They are being pushed to walk away from this issue. To walk away from government integrity, transparency and accountability.”

The coalition includes the ACLU of Massachusetts, Common Cause, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition.

The groups are among critics who have long complained that the public records law is outdated and cumbersome, often forcing document seekers to endure long waits and exorbitant costs.

One group that has expressed concerns about the proposed changes is the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents local city and town governments.

Municipal officials say they don’t want the changes to turn into an unfunded mandate where they are stuck with increased costs associated with researching and responding to the requests.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said cities and towns - especially smaller communities - also want to make sure they have more flexible deadlines in responding to requests.

He said responding to some requests can be time-consuming, which can be a burden for communities with smaller municipal staffs.

Beckwith pointed to a request in one town for every building permit and disposition of those permits during a 15-year period and a request in another town for every parking ticket, the name of every officer who issued the tickets, and the disposition of the tickets over nine years.

“We expect that there will be a timeline in the final legislation but we request that the timeline be flexible,” he said.

Beckwith said he fully expected the Legislature to approve an overhaul.

The bill is one of a series of recent measures aimed at improving public access to government records in Massachusetts, though a similar bill failed to advance in the last session.

State Secretary William Galvin is pushing a ballot question that would guarantee the right to obtain records within a reasonable time and at a reasonable fee.

The question would also give Galvin’s office more power to investigate delays in providing public records and to enforce the law. The question would cap the cost of copying public documents at 15 cents for each black-and-white page and 25 cents for each color copy.

In July, Gov. Charlie Baker also ordered his administration to take steps to make public records easier to obtain, noting Massachusetts had received failing grades for government transparency.

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