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Massachusetts Governor vetoes MBTA retirement fund exemption

DeniedOn Friday, July 11, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed that state’s final 2015 budget. As part of his overall review and budget approval, the Governor chose to veto a provision that suggested the state’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) retirement fund be exempted from the state’s existing public records laws. His position was that his desire is to see greater transparency in government, and that this exemption would be a step in the wrong direction.

Background

This veto may be a result of the more recent scrutiny placed on the management of the fund since its significant losses that were reported in late 2013. As rumors of the fund’s failed investments began to leak, news agencies began to request additional information on the fund through standard process public records requests. Those same agencies were surprised to find their requests denied or ignored, generally citing that the fund did not consider itself a public entity and was therefore not subject to the referenced law.

This opinion came as the result of changes to the Massachusetts definition of the term “public records” that were passed in 2013. In a variety of political maneuvers that have taken place since then, the state moved towards total transparency, enacting new legislation that required sweeping “open” access including holding open public meetings, complying with public records requests and adhering to agreed-upon conflict of interest rules.

However, as part of the budget negotiation process this year, legislators repealed that law in favor of more narrow disclosure requirements, primarily requiring the fund to disclose the recipients of public pension money and the amount of their pensions.

Governor Patrick’s veto signals his support of the original requirement for greater transparency.

How it Stacks Up to Other Public Pensions

One of the primary points at issue is standards to which other similar funds are held. For example, the state workers’ $60 billion pension fund discloses distributions to top recipients, shares monthly investment performance data and holds regular meetings that are open to the public. Some supports of greater transparency want the MBTA fund to follow suit.

One of the arguments against greater transparency came from the labor union to which many of the pension holders belong, stating that there is also a duty to protect privacy of members and directors and that must be considered alongside the desire for greater transparency.

Future Outlook

While Governor Patrick’s veto certainly sends a strong signal that the objective is for greater transparency, it will be interesting to see how this situation plays out as the governor leaves office and a new administration takes over.

Now, the issue seems to be that although there is an overall sense of agreement that greater transparency is valuable and necessary, there is substantial disagreement over exactly how to go about achieving a balance. Questions about how much information, what type of information, what specific information, and how and to whom to disclose will likely have to be discussed and agreed upon as the issue plays out in the coming months.

Bay County Appraiser warns residents about property assessment scam

MoneyThere is currently a mail solicitation circulating around the Bay County area from a company calling itself the “Record Transfer Services.” The company offers individuals a copy of their property assessment profile and a copy of the deed to their property for a fee of $83.

When news of this company reached Dan Sowell, Bay County Property Appraiser, he immediately posted a notice on his website to urge the public to save their money, and not fall for this scam because the information is readily available on his site at no cost to the inquirer. Sowell illustrated that on the bottom of the company’s solicitation, it reads that the information they’re providing is online. [Read more...]

Massachusetts SWAT teams don’t need to respond to public records requests

Police LineWhat does a SWAT team have in common with the Girl Scouts of America? It depends on whether they’re located in Massachusetts and the ACLU tries to get records out of them.

On June 24, the ACLU published the results of a year-long study into militarization and American police forces. To do so, it analyzed records of 800 separate SWAT deployments that occurred during 2011-2012 amongst 20 different federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. [Read more...]

Pennsylvania schools to get more transparent in the coming year

ApprovedWhat do Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln universities have in common? They’re all classified as “state-related” universities, an affiliation that classifies them as schools which may soon have to report greater amounts of information to the state capitol in Harrisburg.

In 2008, the state established a Right-to-Know law, which explicitly outlined that commonwealth organizations can’t deny access to public records information unless another law would render the action illegal. Of course, the definition of which documents constitute public record is a different matter entirely. As a result of this potential wiggle room, the state legislature is currently voting on Senate Bill 444, which would require the four state affiliate universities to hugely increase the scope of which of their documents are considered public record. [Read more...]

Ohio audit shows improvement in compliance rates

Chart UpWhile perfect compliance rates in public records requests are hard to achieve, it’s always good to see improvement, and improvement was certainly seen in a recent investigation in Ohio into the compliance and practices of various public offices and how they handle public records requests. Ten years ago, the exact same type of test was conducted, with much more troubling results. At that time, only about seven out of 10 public records requests were complied with, whereas now roughly 9 in 10 requests are serviced as they’re supposed to be. [Read more...]

Proposition 42 in California is a major win for government transparency

InvisibleIn 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown of California faced a major problem: he had just approved a state budget that let local governments and jurisdictions off the hook for complying with public records and open meeting laws and requests. His reasoning included the number of complaints from localities that couldn’t get the state government to reimburse their costs when fielding public records requests. While not a complete and blatant slap in the face to public records law, the requirements for compliance under the new budget were certainly looser.

It didn’t take long for voters to catch wind of this, however, and the backlash began almost immediately. Everyone from bloggers to statewide newspapers published articles about the new public records requirements hidden away in the budget. [Read more...]

Kentucky has trouble keeping up with the digital age

LaptopJust like any other state, Kentucky has provisions in its laws allowing for the public to inspect the records of public officials and bodies at will. This can include business applications, property transfers, birth records, or the meeting schedules of elected officials. Legally, the state is required to allow any citizen to inspect these records for free (though there are a number of record types which are sealed off from the public, often due to national security statutes). If a member of the public wants to obtain their own copy of the records, however, they must pay for the time it takes to gather and reproduce the records. [Read more...]

Little shop that changed the course of privacy law closes

Sorry ClosedIf you don’t live in Washington, D.C., you might not have ever heard of Potomac Video, a small video rental shop that’s had its doors open for the past 33 years, since 1981 when it opened. Last week, however, the shop is finally surrendering to the pressures of online streaming and kiosk rental services like Netflix and Redbox, going out of business once and for all.

So what’s the big fuss if a small video rental store is closing, especially if it’s thousands of miles from your home? This particular store has quite the history, especially when it comes to public records or, more specifically, privacy law. [Read more...]