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LAWMAKERS SEEK RELIEF FROM FRIVOLOUS RECORD REQUESTS .: The State House News Service

LAWMAKERS SEEK RELIEF FROM FRIVOLOUS RECORD REQUESTS

By Kaitlyn Budion
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 11, 2019.....Citizens abuse the open meeting law and public records requests in order to overwhelm and harass local officials, lawmakers said Monday.

"Many towns in the Metrowest region have been inundated with hundreds of frivolous open meeting law and public records law complaints which has created disruption in town offices and an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money responding to those complaints," said Rep. David Linsky of Natick.

At a public hearing of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, Linsky joined Sen. Becca Rausch of Needham and town officials from Natick to advocate for a bill to adjust the requirements in the open meeting and public records request laws.

The bill (H 2740/S 1899) would allow cities to reject a complaint or request if the complainant has filed more than five times in the last year or it is "unduly burdensome." It establishes a process for the complainant to petition the attorney general's office to appeal that decision.

Rausch said the intent of the bill is to streamline the process, and allow municipalities to refuse overwhelming requests.

"In order for our governmental bodies to represent and respond to all the appropriate public records requests we have to improve the way to weed out the frivolous and harassing requests," she said.

Government agencies are frequently asked to disclose public records, in part because such records are not available on government websites or not easily made available when requested.

The bill also states that a complaint must be filed within 20 business days of the alleged violation, and the governmental body must confirm receipt of the complaint within 14 business days.

In the town of Natick, just one person has submitted an overwhelming number of open meeting law complaints and public records requests to the school committee, said Timothy Luff, assistant school superintendent in Natick.

In the town of Natick, just one person has submitted an overwhelming number of open meeting law complaints and public records requests to the school committee, said Luff. Since February 2018, the school committee has received and answered over 250 public record or open meeting requests from that individual. In that same time frame, 11 public record appeals have been filed and 612 open meeting law complaints have been filed, including eight open meeting complaints in the past three weeks.

Luff said the bill would allow the school committee to reject complaints from people who submit large numbers of them, and allow employees to focus on their jobs.

"Simply put, the loophole within the law that we are asking you to modify today has taken enough time away from our essential mission of the school, that is the teaching and learning of all of our students," Luff said.

The situation at the school committee is mirrored at the general town level, said Diane Packer, Natick town clerk.

"Over the past 12 to 18 months the number of public records requests from just a couple of people has surpassed all the requests from all other requesters," Packer said. "It is because of this overwhelming volume that it is becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible to respond to all of these requests in a timely manner while still providing the services that the public expects in the clerk's office especially during busy election cycles and town meeting cycles."

Ultimately, she said, it is about allowing towns to provide services to all residents.

"An unreasonably high volume of frivolous requests from just a few people should not come at the expense of the rights of other citizens," Packer said.

END
06/11/2019


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