Attleboro area legislators open to reconsidering public records law exemption

Local lawmakers say they would consider ending the Legislature’s exemption from the state public records law, but there is no movement on Beacon Hill to do so.

The Legislature is now out of formal session and there has been no effort to reconsider the exemption.

In fact, House Speaker Robert DeLeo recently defended the Legislature’s lack of accountability, saying it is in full compliance with the law.

Of course, DeLeo, D-Winthrop, and his colleagues make the law, and they have decided to keep a situation that leaves them exempt for public disclosure requirements that apply to state agencies and cities and towns.

State Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, served on a joint House and Senate commission that looked into the transparency issue and said he was disappointed they couldn’t agree on reforms.

The committee ended up not making any recommendations to the Legislature although the Senate separately made some minor changes.

“I thought there was a compelling case to remove the exemption for the Legislature,” Feeney said.

Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, a freshman, also said she supports more transparency in state government, including removing the exemption.

There might be some areas that have to remain confidential, she said, but in general records should be publicly available.

Pam Wilmot, president of Common Cause, said the Massachusetts Legislature is probably the only one in the nation with a complete exemption from a public records law.

She said the exemption means the public and the media have no access to the Legislature’s spending records.

Although the budgets for agencies are public, the media and public cannot look at how legislative office expense money is spent or get access to other financial records.

There is no scrutiny of contracts the Legislature agrees to with vendors or non-disclosure agreements it makes with former employees.

Recently, when The Boston Herald discovered the House had spent $4,745 of taxpayer money on Chinese food on the last day of the legislative session, the Legislature’s exemption from the law prevented the paper from finding out if DeLeo approved the purchase.

Some local legislators, such as Rep. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, said the Legislature has to be exempt because lawmakers are told “highly personal” things by constituents who want help with a problem.

“If our emails were of public record, many constituents might not seek our assistance with their issues. As it is, much of our personal information, much more than a non-public official, is already out there for the citizens to see,” he said.

But Wilmot said most legislatures exclude communications with constituents from public scrutiny while making most other records available to the public.

Massachusetts could do the same thing, she said, to satisfy the concerns of lawmakers.

State Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro, was taken to task in a Herald story for supporting a bill to create a commission on saving local journalism, but not speaking out about changing the law so the newspaper can get access to records.

A first-term representative, Hawkins said public records are not something he has been focused on as he has concentrated health care, homelessness, the South Attleboro train station, the elderly and education.

He said he is not opposed to re-evaluating the exemption, but he does not know enough about the subject yet to say whether he would support it.

But he also said he is open with the public and feels his actions and votes are done in the open.

State Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, also said he would like more openness, quoting Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous saying about sunlight being the best disinfectant.

“As long as constituents are protected then I think the more transparency the better,” he said. “Doing deals behind closed doors without scrutiny is not in the best interest of the public and certainly not in the best interest of democracy.”

While the Legislature doesn’t allow the public to see its records, it has gotten miffed at the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker for not giving it records from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

State Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, said she doesn’t understand why the legislative leadership will not go along with being more open.

The excuse, she said, is constituent communications are personal, but she doesn’t know why the other records can’t be made public. “I’m just guessing, but maybe they think they are under enough pressure and under a magnifying glass,” she said.

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