Public records

How can we improve the state's public records law?

Democrat

I have vigorously enforced the right of citizens to gain access to all types of public records, including e-mail and other electronic communications. My office has regularly adjudicated more than 500 public records requests annually.

However, the Legislature has continually refused to support my legislative initiatives to require enforcement of this law.

In particular, I support and have filed legislative proposals to streamline the enforcement process, which presently requires the supervisor of public records to refer to the attorney general requests to follow disclosure orders.

I have also proposed that my office should have the authority to 'order' that reproduction fees be waived in appropriate cases because access to records can be costly, particularly for average citizens.

Republican

The state public records law is clear - all records are public records except for certain limited exceptions.

As Woburn City Clerk for nearly 13 years, that principle has guided my actions. Our municipal code, zoning code, notices of meetings, and journals of the City Council have been made available online and in hard copy for several years. Our city charter is updated and available for the first time since 1966, including an electronic format available online.

There does need to be legislative clarification of some of the exceptions. This has mostly been left to the courts, with somewhat confusing results.

There should not be a rush to convert all records to a digital format without some analysis as to the benefit to the public. Having all records in digital format would provide little benefit to the community in most cases with unnecessary cost to the taxpayers.

Every record, no matter how created, is considered a public record. The cost of digitizing the millions of pages created each year on the state, county, and local levels would likely be staggering and in most cases would serve no useful purpose; it would be creating electronic records for the sake of electronic records.

In addition, technology changes frequently without looking back. There is a book in our vault at city hall dating from 1670 that is as readable today as it was when created. Yet copies of the municipal code saved on floppy disks by my predecessor are no longer accessible because computers generally do not accept that format any longer.

It is akin to the rush for electronic voting machines as opposed to the paper-based optical scan voting machines. Time has quickly shown that the paper-based optical scan voting machine is more reliable and commands the faith of the voting public more than the touch-screen voting machines, which have mostly fallen out of favor.

Unenrolled

The public records law needs to be updated to recognize the existence of electronic records and advances in search and storage technology.

The current law establishes the right to access, but given the built-in presumption that all records are in paper form, the law also requires that one go through a gatekeeper to get actual access to records.

Most, if not virtually all, public records generated today exist in electronic form, and therefore can be made available online without a need for a formal request to a records gatekeeper, and without the accompanying fees.

Further, by reviewing and revising the basis for the numerous exceptions to the 40-year-old law, and hopefully streamlining these rules, we can break down bureaucratic barriers that have generated a culture of secrecy.

Further, the processes of government must be treated as public records. The public deserves to know and have the chance to understand how public decisions are made, especially where financial matters are involved.

One example is the historic rehabilitation tax credit program, overseen by the office of the secretary. Currently, the application process and criteria are closely guarded secrets, with neither applicants nor the public aware of what constitutes a successful application.

Until the most recent round of grants, Mr. Galvin refused to publicly identify the recipients of the tax credits, essentially keeping the entire process in the dark. A revision to (or better enforcement of) the public records law would allow both the public and tax credit applicants to benefit: the public could more easily determine whether the process is indeed fair, and applicants will be able to more accurately plan for the availability and impact of tax credits on their proposed development projects.

However, whether or not the public records laws change to address this concern, I will lift the veil of secrecy on this important program, if elected as secretary.

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Ballot questions

Should the threshold for getting a question on the ballot be increased, as some legislators have suggested?

Democrat

In a word, 'No.'

The present process, which requires a significant number of signatures, is still achievable for even a grassroots volunteer effort. The signature level directly relates to voter turnout in recent elections.

To increase the number of signatures would compromise the rights of citizens to seek access to the ballot.

I do believe that to the extent constitutionally permissible, the role of paid signature gatherers should be scrutinized.

Republican

The threshold for getting a question on the ballot should NOT be increased. The threshold is already quite high.

The people have reserved for themselves, under the state constitution, the power of popular initiative.

In order to place a matter before the General Court, the petition must include certified signatures at least equal to 3% of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor, excluding blanks, at the last state election, with no more than 1/4 of the certified signatures coming from one county.

Currently, that is a total of 66,593 certified signatures.

If the General Court rejects or fails to act on the petition, signatures of an additional 1/2 of 1% of the votes cast for the governor, excluding blanks, at the last state election must be filed, with no more than 1/4 of the signatures coming from one county.

Currently, this is an additional 11,099 certified signatures.

Further, two Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court cases have made it even more difficult to gather signatures for initiative petitions.

If there are any extraneous markings on a petition sheet - a pen mark, highlight marker, page numbering, and a host of other innocent marks - this will invalidate every single signature on the petition whether it is a valid signature or not.

This has led to petitioners collecting one signature on an entire sheet of paper, which wastes resources, wastes money, and creates unnecessary work for the signature gatherers as well as the local election officials who certify the validity of the signatures.

It also throws out valid signatures of voters who, by a stroke of bad luck, happen to sign a particular sheet that has a stray pen mark on it. The Legislature should act to remedy this issue.

Unenrolled

The purpose of increasing the signature threshold would be to reduce the number of ballot questions that get qualified in each election cycle. So the real question is, are there too many citizen initiatives securing ballot status?

In 2000, there were 8 ballot questions placed before the voters. Since then, however, there have been no more than 3 such questions in each election year (there were none in 2004). This suggests to me that the ballot question process is working as intended.

The residents of the Commonwealth have an opportunity to exercise their constitutionally-granted rights to place initiatives up for a vote, but at the same time, we are not inundated with such matters, as is seen in California, where there are 11 such questions this year, and 15 in 2008.

I do not believe having 3 or 4 initiatives reach the ballot, as has been the common experience over the past 20 years, is too many. Increasing the signature threshold would run the risk of eliminating the citizen initiative process in practice, which I do not find acceptable.

Procedurally, however, we can improve the signature-gathering process, for both ballot petitions and candidate nominations.

Specifically, the secretary should take data provided electronically by the applicable committees and automatically generate PDF versions of the signature sheets.

These forms would have all pertinent information preprinted thereon, with identifying features at both the top and bottom of each page, so that voters can easily ascertain the purpose of the ballot petition or the identity of the candidate.

The forms could also incorporate barcoding for security purposes and to allow direct online access to additional data.

In all cases, but especially in the case of ballot petitions, the PDF forms would be encrypted against alterations, and would make clear the "no alterations" rule established in the SJC's 1998 decision, Hurst v. State Ballot Commission.

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Priorities

If elected, what are your priorities for the next term?

Democrat

Among my priorities during the next four years, I intend to utilize the authority provided by the recently enacted national financial regulation law to expand my protection of Massachusetts families that invest their assets in risk financial investments such as the stock market and mutual funds.

I worked hard to make sure that the new law guarantees the right of states such as Massachusetts to provide greater consumer protection to its citizens. I intend to use that authority.

Within the next two years, Massachusetts must complete a redistricting of its congressional and legislative districts. I am committed to a transparent process that protects the integrity of communities without regard to partisan advantage or disadvantage.

This process begins with every city and town redrawing their ward and precinct lines under my supervision. I am determined that this should be a fair and transparent process that protects villages, neighborhoods, and communities of interest so that they may receive fair political representation.

I am also prioritizing continuing enforcement of the new reformed lobbying laws which I worked to pass. Every year, special interests in Massachusetts spend tens of millions of dollars to influence policy. I am committed to a continuing and expanded effort to provide prompt disclosure of who is paying and whom they are paying to influence public policy.

Republican

Three immediate priorities will be to work to require that voters present an identification at the polling place when they vote, to ease the burden on our troops when they are voting by absentee ballot and ensure that their votes are counted on election day, and to prevent election day registration at the polls, which will open the door to fraud and create new financial burdens on the taxpayers.

In addition, given the broad oversight vested in the secretary of state - elections, corporations, securities, registries of deeds, public records, state archives, and others - I will review every department with the goal to increase efficiencies and eliminate duplicate or unnecessary offices or positions.

Unenrolled

My initial priority is to improve public access to the information maintained by the office of secretary, to foster greater transparency throughout Massachusetts government.

Such improvements will be a simple as making the official website more user-friendly, but will also include updating and streamlining databases to allow for easier online search capability.

I will also encourage an "open data" model, and make pertinent public data (but never protected personal information) available for private development, especially for mobile applications.

For too long, Massachusetts residents have complained about how inaccessible and hidden our government tends to be; this trend must be reversed.

Next, with the expectation that only half of the state's registered voters will vote this November, I believe we must improve voter turnout in future state elections.

Low voter turnout in communities around the Commonwealth is simply a symptom of more basic problems, whether it is lack of understanding among voters, structural impediments to voting, cultural issues, or the misperception that "my vote just doesn't matter." The next secretary cannot be complacent about or accepting of only 50% turnout in statewide elections.

In that role, I will work directly with community officials and organizations to both diagnose and address these problems.

Beyond that, we should review the election process itself to find ways to augment participation, considering ideas such as early voting as a way to facilitate voting in our busy, overscheduled culture, and adopting ranked choice voting to encourage and facilitate more party and non-party candidates to run for office.

Additional items that I would work on include:

(1) Improving reporting procedures for business entities, making them more understandable to and supporting greater compliance by owners and directors

(2) Improving access to the state archives

(3) Establishing satellite offices in additional cities.

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Responses gathered through e.thePeople