WESTFIELD–Changes to the laws regarding record acquisition have been active since Jan. 1 of this year but it has largely gone unnoticed until recently.
Massachusetts instituted a sweeping reform of the state’s public records law, which impacted those who attempt to retrieve public records from municipalities, as well as the municipalities from which the records are requested. While these changes may have streamlined the process it may confuse some people when requesting information.
The changes to the law, which Gov. Charlie Baker signed and was titled “An Act to Improve Public Records,” have a number of actions to how the process of requesting records works. One such change is the creation of a records access officer, which is a person designated by an agency or municipality to coordinate the responses to requests, as well as assisting with fulfilling and creating guidelines for requests.
The person for Westfield, Robyn Gay, paralegal for the law department for the city of Westfield, was appointed by Mayor Brian Sullivan, and was given a stipend for her additional work, but the position is not an additional one for the city to fill on a full-time status.
“She processes all the requests and makes sure everything is done correctly,” Sue Phillips, city solicitor for Westfield, said.
In addition to the new position, responses to requests have changed for municipalities in the state. While the time to respond is still 10 days, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website, records access officers “must permit inspection or furnish a copy of a requested public record within 10 business days following receipt of the request.” If they cannot fulfill this, then they can petition the supervisor of records for an extension, which is another change.
“It used to be that the keeper of records had 10 days to find the records or tell you they need more time,” Phillips said. “Now after 10 days they must go to their supervisor.”
Another change is regarding fees. When someone makes a records request now, fees may be incurred depending on how long the work takes but not until at least two hours of labor was done, meaning the first two hours are free-of-charge.
From the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website:
“Beginning January 1, 2017, if a response to a public records request requires more than 2 hours of employee time, a [records access officer] may assess a fee of the hourly rate of the lowest paid employee with the skills necessary to search for, compile, segregate, redact or reproduce a requested record. However, the fee shall not exceed $25 an hour, unless approved by the Supervisor of Records. Municipalities with populations of 20,000 people or fewer will be permitted to charge for the first 2 hours of employee time.”
Another change is regarding how superior court plays into records requests. At times, a request may have to go in front of a judge for it to be settled. If a request is denied by the municipality then this option may allow for a quicker resolution.
“Under the new law, you can go directly to superior court if denied, bypassing the supervisor of records,” Phillips said.
This, in turn, could put more pressure on records access officers to fulfill requests in order to, if nothing else, avoid the municipality going to court.
Additionally, the changes provide the chance for relief of those who go to court and win in the case. Again, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website, “if a requestor prevails in a court action against an agency or municipal [records access officer], the court may award the requestor attorney fees or costs.”
Finally, another notable change is that records will now be more readily available online, after the law bolstered the online presence of public records. Included in this are commonly requested records, which will help lessen the need for people to request records. Additionally, if someone does request records that are online, then they can be directed to the document.
Also, according to Phillips, the minutes from all board meetings must be put up on the city’s website in a reasonable timeframe, starting July 1.
For more information, check out the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website on the updated law.