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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