BOSTON -- Attorney General Maura Healey was praised Friday by newspaper publishers and editors for prying open access to public records and government meetings in a state criticized for its secrecy.
Healey, a Democrat, recently sued three prosecutors -- in Plymouth and Worcester counties, and for the Cape and the Islands district -- for not turning over electronic lists of criminal cases. It was the first time in decades that an attorney general has sued to enforce the records law.
“This was a resolute and encouraging sign of her willingness to enforce the state’s public records law," said Bill Ketter, president of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, in opening remarks at the group's annual meeting in Boston. “She has been a champion for us, especially on open meetings law.”
Healey told editors and publishers that she is trying to balance her dual responsibilities of enforcing the law and defending officials sued by the press and public for refusing to release documents or charging excessive fees.
“I take seriously our job enforcing the open meetings law,” Healey said Friday. “It’s about democracy and making sure the public knows what’s going on in their government.”
Healey, who took office last year, ended a long-running dispute between the attorney general’s office and Secretary of State William Galvin over enforcement of the state’s open records laws.
Under state law, the secretary of state fields complaints about denials of public records requests, but the attorney general has the authority to sue officials who refuse to comply.
Galvin had stopped referring appeals to her predecessor, Martha Coakley, in a 2010 dispute over a misinterpretation of the law. Open government advocates say that essentially gutted the law by emboldening state and local agencies to disregard it.
Last year, the Legislature approved the first overhaul of the public records law in decades. Changes aimed to improve the public's access by limiting how much state and local governments can charge for records and setting deadlines to reply to requests for information.
On Friday, the publishers group unveiled a new “open government award,” named after Bill Plante, former editor of the Daily News of Newburyport, and awarded it to state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, for their work on the records reform bill and for opening committee hearings to debate changes to the law.
“They walked the talk on transparency by breaking with Beacon Hill tradition and conducting the conference committee meetings in open session,” said Ketter, who is senior vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., parent company of The Eagle-Tribune.
The reform bill, passed with near-unanimous support and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker, also created a special commission to study opening up access to the state Legislature and courts.
Unlike city councils, selectmen and most other governmental bodies, the Legislature and courts are exempt from the state's public records and open meeting laws.
In August, the state Supreme Judicial Court issued new guidelines calling for greater public access to basic criminal court information online.
Federal courts have ruled that the public has a right to access criminal court information, but Massachusetts courts have blocked access to those cases here. The courts allow the public to look up civil cases online.
Watchdog groups consistently give Massachusetts poor marks for transparency.
The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news organization, ranked the state 40th and gave it an “F” for public access to government.
In 2015, Baker directed state officials to improve access by requiring agencies to limit fees and designate someone to oversee requests for information.
But Baker's office itself is not covered by the public records law, and requests for information are routinely denied.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.