Public Records Law Overhauled For First Time In 43 Years
The state’s public records law was updated today for the first time in 43 years. The new law, “An Act to Improve Public Records,” puts pressure on municipalities and agencies to respond quickly and adequately to public record requests by establishing strict timeline requirements and allowing for significant judicial measures in the event of noncompliance.
Most notably, the law allows judges to award attorney fees and costs, as well as punitive damages up to $5,000 for a lack of good faith, to requesters who succeed in court against an agency or municipality that fails to produce records according to the statute. This change accompanies a new timeframe for responding to requests. Like the current law, the new law requires a response within 10 business days. However, the new law will require a municipality or agency, if it cannot produce the requested records, to identify a reasonable timeframe for turning them over. That timeframe cannot exceed 15 days for an agency and 25 days for a municipality following the initial receipt of the request, unless otherwise agreed to by the requestor.
Additional provisions call for the use of electronic and digital transmission of records when possible (preferably in ‘searchable’ form), the designation of one or more employees as ‘records access officers,’ and the creation of a Public Records Assistance Fund. Further, agencies must host websites providing records of proceedings, annual reports, winning bids for public contracts, grant awards, agency budgets, minutes of open meetings, and more.
The law specifically clarifies that personal information of law enforcement and public safety personnel, including their home address, personal email address, and home telephone number, “shall not be public records” and “shall not be disclosed,” with limited exceptions that include requests made by public employee organizations such as unions. Section 10B. Similar personal information relating to family members of law enforcement and public safety personnel are explicitly not public records and should never be disclosed, without exception. Id.
The bill, House No. H.4333, passed unanimously in both the House and Senate on Wednesday and signed today by the governor, after being formed as a result of a compromise between two bills originating separately in each chamber. Most of the provisions of the new law take effect on January 1, 2017.