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New bill would force the Massachusetts governor's office to follow the state public records law

Bill Galvin is the Massachusetts secretary of state.
Don Treeger
The Republican / MassLive.com
Bill Galvin is the Massachusetts secretary of state.

New legislation on Beacon Hill would force the Massachusetts governors' office to comply with the state's public records law.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin said governors since the late 1990s have cited a state Supreme Judicial Court decision, Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council, to shield most documents and information.

Galvin said the legislation, filed on his behalf by Acton Democrat Sen. Jamie Eldridge,
would bring Massachusetts in line with other states.

"Even finding out how many individuals might call on a particular issue, or basic information about the communications the governor has with citizens, as something as proscribed, that's not reasonable and it's certainly nothing that any other part of the country would tolerate," Galvin said.

A government watchdog group, Common Cause Massachusetts, said it supports the legislation.

"We've been working for a very long time here in Massachusetts to make stronger the public records law, and we think that there are many different ways it could be improved here within reason,” said executive director Geoff Foster. “Certainly, the bill that was filed this week is one of them, and we're excited to see it."

The Massachusetts Legislature also does not have to comply with the public records law. Past attempts to make them do so have failed to gain traction, something Galvin considered in taking a narrower approach.

"At this late stage, to try to get the Legislature to do something that they've failed to do year-in and year-out doesn't seem a very sensible strategy,” Galvin said. “Whereas I think the opportunity that's presented with a change in the governor's office is a reasonable strategy and one worth pursuing.”

Governor Charlie Baker is not running for reelection, and since the legislation would take effect with a new administration, Galvin hopes that removes another potential barrier to the bill becoming law.

A spokesperson for Baker said the governor will review any legislation that makes to his desk, and pointed to a 2016 bill Baker signed aimed at improving the public records law.

Most candidates aiming to succeed Baker said they support Galvin's proposal.

Attorney General Maura Healey and Harvard professor Danielle Allen, two of the three Democrats running for governor, have both backed changes that would subject the governor's office to the public records law.

Healey, who as attorney general is responsible for enforcing the public records law, said via a spokesperson that she believes the governor's office should fall under the umbrella of agencies and bodies subject to the law's provisions. She stopped short of saying whether the Legislature and judiciary should also comply.

"AG Healey has long supported updating the public records law to cover the Governor's Office in the interest of transparency and accountability," said Healey spokesperson Jillian Fennimore.

Allen featured public records reform in the "Reimagining Democracy" agenda she released in January.

"The executive branch currently claims to be exempt from public record laws passed in 1973 and enforced in relation to all 351 of the Commonwealth's towns and cities" Allen's campaign website reads. "Under an Allen administration, the executive branch will lead by example on transparency and accountability and hold itself to the same standard to which we hold our municipalities."

Like Healey, Allen did not explicitly indicate if she believes the state House and Senate should also be compelled to comply with the public records law.

The third Democrat, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, did not take a clear position on Galvin's proposal. Her campaign said only that Chang-Diaz has been a supporter of transparency in the Legislature and backed the 2016 records reform law, which Baker ultimately signed.

Both Republicans in the race, former Rep. Geoff Diehl and businessman Chris Doughty, said they believe the governor's office as well as the Legislature should be subject to the public records law at least to some degree.

New England Public Media's Adam Frenier and Chris Lisinski from the State House News Service contributed to this report.

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