Privacy concerns surface over records law

BOSTON — State legislators wrestling to reconcile House and Senate bills seeking to reform the state’s public records laws Wednesday faced the task of balancing the need for access against concerns about divulging sensitive or private information.

But another issue, the quick distribution of public records, may have a solution resting in a type of Internet-based computing using the cloud.

Testifying before a conference committee led by state Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, and Sen. Joan B. Lovely, D-Salem, state Comptroller Thomas Shack said his office is moving toward a cloud-based system to make public records available electronically.

“It’s really designed to create efficiency … to allow folks the opportunity to gather data that they can then utilize in ways that they see fit,” Shack said.

He added that the cloud-based system would provide online access to commonly sought public records without the need to file a formal request.

But the issue of privacy vs. the public’s right to know was a more complex problem for the conference committee tasked with unifying the House and Senate bills. This was the committee’s second meeting.

“When you look at this bill, it’s a battleground in terms of the concepts of transparency and personal privacy,” Kocot said.

Representatives from the offices of the state comptroller, attorney general and secretary of state testified, offering their views on the line between preserving privacy and public information.

“There is this tension between wanting lots of public records out there, and the public will say, ‘We really would like that,’” said Richard Johnston, chief legal counsel for Attorney General Maura Healey. “But when it comes down to specific individuals, they may not be so keen to have their private information out there.”

Johnston emphasized the need for agencies to thoroughly examine public records being requested to ensure they do not disclose confidential material or information that could undermine a continuing investigation or jeopardize safety of an individual or facility.

A spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin’s office said the issue of transparency versus privacy is something that would be addressed in the provisions of the law.

The state’s current public records law, established in 1973, requires that agencies respond to public requests for information within 10 days and charge only the cost of reproducing the requested records.

The House and Senate bills would require each state and local agency to designate someone to be responsible for handling public requests, but would not require that new employees be hired to handle the job.

Both bills also address potential legal action when records requests are wrongfully denied or handled. The Senate bill calls for reimbursing all legal fees “reasonably” incurred if it is determined that the agency improperly handled the request.

The House bill would require that complaints be referred to a superior court to determine whether the request was wrongfully denied.

The bills propose an extension to the amount of time that an agency has to complete a request, though each bill establishes different lengths of time. The House bill sets deadlines of up to 75 days, while the Senate bill calls for up to 60 days.

The meeting was also attended by representatives from the Massachusetts chapters of the ACLU, Common Cause and the Massachusetts Municipal Association, who are expected to testify at a later time.

The conference committee plans to meet for a third time in the coming weeks, though a date has not yet been set.

Stephanie Pagones writes for the Boston University Statehouse Program.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on March 24, 2016.

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Higher ed bill would add millions, freeze tuition, fees

BOSTON — State legislators will be asked to consider a bill that would add millions to the higher education system and freeze tuition and fees in an effort to broaden educational opportunities.

“We need to make sure that these students first have the opportunity to get into higher education and then that they graduate from higher education,” said Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.

Sannicandro said the committee took the suggestions of a commission on higher education made up of industry leaders, state legislators, representatives of private colleges and universities, as well as a separate task force on student debt.

The bill would require that a fixed budget of $95 million per year for five years – approximately $475 million (excluding inflation and collective bargaining increases) – be taken from the discretionary fund and directed at the community colleges, state universities and University of Massachusetts system.

The bill would impose a freeze on tuition and fees for students over a fixed period of time and invest $42 million into the MASSGrant program, which provides need-based financial aid to students in Massachusetts.

Sannicandro said the changes are needed to support Massachusetts’ “technical, brain-powered economy” and changing demographics which means that some people are not able to take advantage of the state’s higher education opportunities, especially those who are “chronically underrepresented” racially, ethnically and socioeconomically.

“We don’t have any coal or oil or really any other natural resources, but we’ve got plenty of brainpower and we need to continue to feed that,” he said.

Sannicandro said because businesses are demanding a more educated and “credentialed” workforce, the bill would require the state to match any private contributions made to its community college internship incentive program.

“We know that businesses really are demanding a more educated workforce,” he said.

Rep. Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat, said while the bill has garnered sponsors, it is asking for a large amount of money at a time when “we have a limited amount of money.”

But Story, who supports the bill, said better funding for higher education is “desperately” needed.

“Students are leaving college with massive amounts of student debt, and are having to work a couple of jobs in addition to taking a full-time load,” Story said. “If we want an educated workforce in the commonwealth, and we certainly do, we need to make it easier for people to get a college degree.”

She was echoed by Natalie Higgins, executive director of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, a higher education advocacy group, who said the freeze on tuition and fees would help students who often are just barely able to afford their educations.

“What’s frustrating for me is seeing the tuition and fees going up every year and seeing students who are just making it work and who are forced to go part-time,” she said.

But the proposal faces a hard road. Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which would allocate $539 million to the UMass system, 1.4 percent more than its current budget of $532 million, has been criticized by Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, for its “woefully inadequate” funding.

This article was originally published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette on March 5, 2016.