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A little-known tip for navigating the Mass. public records law

By Colman Herman, contributing writer, Commonwealth magazine

I have made a lot of public records requests through the years.  Last May, I wrote a piece in this space in which I recount some of the things I have learned along the way that have helped me pry loose records from recalcitrant public officials  I would now like to offer up a few more suggestions.

Besides being able to appeal a public records matter to the state supervisor of public records or seeking judicial relief, the latter of which would be quite expensive, there is a little known provision in the Massachusetts Public Records Law that offers a third option.

It states, “The administrative remedy provided by this section [appeal to the supervisor of public records] shall in no way limit the availability of the administrative remedies provided by the commissioner of administration and finance with respect to any officer or employee of any agency, executive office, department or board . . . .”

In other words, you can ask the secretary of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to intercede on your behalf when, say, you have not gotten a response to your public records request or you think the fees being imposed are excessive.  I sometimes use a two-pronged approach — filing an appeal with the supervisor of public records and getting A&F involved.  This gets the attention of the recalcitrant public official.

Public officials often regard responding to public records requests as not being a major part of their job.  When I have a sense that is their misguided thinking, I remind them that responding to public records requests is not a secondary function of government — it is a primary function.  To back that up, I cite a 2011 ruling by the supervisor of public records: ”The spirit of the Public Records Law is to shine light on the business of government, and compliance with public records requests is part of the day-to-day business of government.”

Finally for now, as with much in life, persistence counts.  Letting public officials know that I am not going away usually gets me the records to which the public is entitled.  And the next time I come knocking, they remember.