Public records bill does little to open access - CommonWealth Magazine
"THE HOUSE WAYS AND MEANS Committee is set to unveil a bill that would allow those who are thwarted in seeking public records to collect attorney fees, a stick designed to put some force behind compliance, but the measure does nothing to strengthen what is largely viewed as one of the nation’s weakest public records laws and, in fact, could make it harder to get records in some cases. The bill being circulated to committee members for approval, which is slated to go for debate before the full House Wednesday, also drops fines from the original sponsors’ bills against individuals who do not comply with the law and, instead, leaves it to a judge to levy a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000 against the agency or municipality. The measure would also allow agencies and communities to request time extensions if they deem the request to be heavily involved, delays that could go up to 75 days after an initial request. The bill had met resistance from cities and towns because of potential costs as well as State Police, who have been reluctant to release records involving officers who have gotten into trouble such as drunken driving or domestic assaults. It appears that some of their concerns were addressed in the measure. The bill gives agencies and municipalities not only extended time to comply, but the option to contract out a search and compliance to an outside vendor if they deem the request goes beyond their capabilities. Under the measure, if a public entity decides to send the request to an outside vendor, the person who made the request must sign an agreement to 'reimburse the agency or municipality for the reasonable and actual costs of engaging a vendor' up to a set amount to be agreed upon. If an amount cannot be agreed to and the requestor does not sign a contract, the agency does not have to comply with the request ..."