Public records overhaul leads to new technological answers

A candidate for Framingham state representative was seeking a list of all city voters who applied for absentee ballots. A reporter wanted information about Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer’s expenses. Insurance companies are asking for police records of clients’ car accidents.

The city of Framingham posts on its website a log of public records requests, along with the documents that were provided — such as a list of absentee voters or building project files.

“If it’s not private information they’re requesting, if it’s basic public records they’re entitled to, they can search our database before logging a request,” said Mike Tusino, the records access officer for Framingham. “It’s a great log of what’s been done and a good resource for the community.”

Framingham is not alone.

Since Massachusetts updated its public records law last year, an increasing number of city and town clerks have been using computer software for the first time to manage public records requests. One side-effect of that shift is that more of these requests are becoming fully public on the internet, making it easier for people to search for information about city and town affairs.

“The current public records process reflects an earlier era, where documents were on paper — and you wouldn’t allow a member of the public to go through your filing cabinet and take what they want,” said Tamara Manik-Perlman, CEO and co-founder of NextRequest, which sells software to manage public records requests. “As more records are digital … for many categories of public information and data, there’s no reason people should not be able to access them directly.”

In June 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the first major overhaul of the state’s public records law in 40 years, which went into effect in 2017. The new law set concrete timelines for public agencies to comply with records requests and limited how much money public agencies can charge for copies. Cities and towns must now appoint a single records access officer who is responsible for overseeing requests.

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Newton adopted NextRequest in early 2017, soon after the new law went into effect. “Prior to that, it was individual departments doing their own thing, and it was very rarely pulled together into one complete record,” Olson said.

Newton makes public those requests that do not include personal information and that city officials think will attract wider interest. Most of the requests on the city’s website relate to information about specific properties — for example, documents about underground tanks or hazardous material.

Manik-Perlman, of NextRequest, said the option to make requests public came from a recommendation by the Obama administration. “One of the things they identified as an opportunity for transparency and efficiency was a ‘release to one, release to all’ policy,” Manik-Perlman said.

Manik-Perlman said if a record does not contain personal or sensitive information, making it public on the web makes it easier for people to get that information and limits the time government officials have to spend duplicating responses to requests.

However, not all towns want this option. Some smaller towns have found different solutions to managing public records requests.

The Rhode Island-based LL Data Designs customizes public records software for clerks in around 45 small Massachusetts towns. The software is not web-based, so records cannot be shared between departments or published on the internet. But it does track and organize requests and produce reports.

LL Data Designs owner Lisa Pagano said she gives small town clerks a “cheaper alternative” to the larger web-based companies, and she customizes the software to meet their needs.

Pagano charges around $2,000 for her software, with a $500 annual maintenance fee. FOIADirect generally charges $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the size of the city, while the paid version of NextRequest starts around $5,000 and varies based on agency size and request volume. NextRequest also offers a free version.

Springfield paid $9,600 in June 2018 for GovQA’s public records platform, according to the city’s open checkbook.

Pagano said she has been customizing municipal software for decades, but her work on public records management in Massachusetts only started after the 2017 law change.

“When the law first came out in Massachusetts, everybody was like, we have to get something, we have to get something,” Pagano said.

Great Barrington town clerk Marie Ryan, president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association, said LL Data Designs lets her track requests and pull reports more quickly and easily than using an Excel spreadsheet, which she did until 2017.

Ryan said before the law change, town departments would give people copies, without keeping track of requests. The new law required her to start tracking requests, centralizing them and meeting deadlines.

Some clerks, however, still say they do not need specialized software.

Marlborough City Clerk Lisa Thomas, president of the Massachusetts City Clerks’ Association, said all records requests come through her office, other than those that go to the police. When a request comes in, she logs it in an Excel spreadsheet and sends it to the legal department, which forwards it to the appropriate department. The relevant department keeps track of the timeline and produces the documents. Then, Thomas makes a pdf and responds.

Thomas said she thinks clerks often need software if they have a weak information technology department.

“I know what I’m doing, so save the money,” Thomas said. “We’ve not had any complaints.”




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