The Honorable Marc R. Pacheco, Senate Chair
The Honorable Danielle W. Gregoire, House Chair
Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight
State House, Boston

Dear Chair Pacheco, Chair Gregoire, and Committee Members,

On behalf of cities and towns of the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Municipal Association is pleased to offer testimony in strong support of H. 2740 and S. 1899, An Act Promoting Governmental Efficiency, before the committee for public hearing today.

Acting together, the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law are meant to promote government transparency and accountability, and local government officials recognize the value of both of these laws. The challenge is how to ensure that local officials have enough time and flexibility to comply with the acts without diverting resources and time from their other important public services and duties on behalf of local residents and taxpayers.

Some 250 cities and towns in Massachusetts have 19,000 or fewer residents, and 50 percent have fewer than 10,000 residents, and thus have very small local governments, with volunteer boards overseeing various departments. Many communities, especially in western Massachusetts, have part-time town administrators, no broadband service, or have town halls that are closed one or more days during the workweek.

Implementing the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law is an important public good. But there are many other vital public goods that must be implemented at the same time, in every department and agency, from zoning and planning, to fire protection and public education, to building schools and policing the streets, to serving the youth, seniors and veterans, and so much more. To be sustainable and responsible, any changes to the Open Meet Law or Public Records Law should enhance the current law without harming or impairing the ability to continue delivering these vital public services. Municipal officials need flexibility, time and resources to do all of their jobs well, and all we are asking is that legislation to update the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law reflect this reality.

While most individuals use the open meeting complaint process and public records requests for their intended purposes, there are loopholes in the laws as written that allow individuals to file hundreds of repetitive complaints and requests, causing local government officials hours and hours of work and thousands of dollars in lost time and legal counsel expenses.

As written, H. 2740 and S. 1899 would offer relief to municipalities using a targeted and balanced approach. First, the legislation would amend the Open Meeting Law to allow the public body to respond to a complaint stating that it is unduly burdensome if the same complainant files more than five complaints with the same public body in the same year of the body’s operation. This would still allow the complainant an alternative avenue to petition the attorney general, but would allow the public body some relief in their obligation to reply to repetitive requests by the same individual.

Second, as written, the Public Records Law only provides relief if the Supervisor of Public Records determines that the public records request was part of a series of contemporaneous requests that are frivolous or designed to intimidate or harass and the request was not intended for “broad dissemination of information to the public.” This bill would strike the requirement that the Supervisor of Public Records determine if the request was intended for broad dissemination. Because of advanced technology and the ease of posting information online, this portion of the determination has become increasingly easy to meet. Although the Public Records Law does not currently have guidelines on what constitutes a frivolous request, the removal of this language would allow for the Supervisor of Public Records to focus solely on whether requests are a series of frivolous requests designed to intimidate or harass.

The MMA’s position on these laws has always been to call for balanced changes to prevent the imposition of unfunded mandates on cities and towns, and to ensure that local officials have enough time and flexibility to comply with the act without diverting resources, staff and attention from their other important public services and duties on behalf of local residents and taxpayers. H. 2740 and S. 1899 would provide important updates to both the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law that strike a perfect balance between government transparency and accountability and government resources and time.

Thank you for your interest in this very important local government matter. If you have any questions, please contact me or MMA Senior Legislative Analyst Brittney Franklin at 617-426-7272 or bfranklin@mma.org at any time.

Sincerely,

Geoffrey C. Beckwith
Executive Director & CEO