As the MNPA reported today, “Something extraordinary happened today on the editorial pages of Massachusetts daily newspapers. More than 20 of the state’s newspapers agreed to jointly run an editorial endorsing reforms to the public records and open meetings laws that would help bring about increased government transparency.” I’m happy to lend this space as well for the cause as well.
The walls Beacon Hill has erected between itself and those it governs have taken on two dramatically different faces.
Outside, they show decades’ of wear at the hands of those fighting for better access to their government. Inside, they’re increasingly pocked with a taint that thrives in the absence of light.
That taint, most recently seen in a disturbing chain of high-profile corruption cases, suggests any benefits such barriers provide to the efficiency of lawmaking are grievously undermined by the efficiencies they also provide to those more interested in lawbreaking.
The felony convictions of three successive House speakers — and a Probation Department scandal that threatens to reach into every corner of public service — clearly indicate state transparency laws are in dire need of improvement.
Central to that effort is eliminating exemptions that free the governor’s office, Legislature and judiciary from having to live by the meeting and records laws that apply to every other public office in this state. Just as important is making it easier and more affordable for people to take advantage of the access already protected by a law that predates e-mail and the Internet.
It’s an area where minor advances have been made but substantive reform has been routinely killed or ignored.
Given recent scandals and polls showing a deep and growing distrust in government, we hope this year is different.
That notion will soon be tested on several fronts as lawmakers consider a number of initiatives.
One bill seeks to reduce the cost of obtaining records, requiring state agencies to make commonly sought public documents available electronically. It would also cut administrative costs and processing time associated with such records requests.
Another would strengthen the enforcement and investigatory powers of the Supervisor of Public Records.
A third would assess penalties against lawmakers who purposely skirt access laws and would cover the legal fees of those who successfully challenge them. And several seek to breach that battered and stained wall around Beacon Hill, subjecting the Legislature to the state’s Open Meeting Law.
Critics of the measures have focused on the financial and manpower burdens they impose on records keepers. Yet this push for more easily accessible records, already successfully implemented in other states, holds the promise of reducing those burdens.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, following the June conviction of his predecessor, Salvatore DiMasi, vowed to regain voters’ faith in state government.
“Today’s news delivers a powerful blow to the public’s trust in government,” he wrote then. “One of the things that I find most disturbing – and the thing I am most committed to changing – is the public’s view of politicians and public sector employees.”
Fewer walls — legal, financial and technological — would go a long way toward that goal.