Massachusetts is the only state in the country that exempts all three branches of government from open meeting law. It’s only one of four states that exempt the Legislative branch from open meeting law. In particular, the House of Representatives has a very secretive and haphazard committee process. At one point there was a special commission on public records, chaired by a representative who has since stepped down, who made an attempt to wade through the mire but was ultimately unsuccessful. Why is it so hard to get some light on the public’s business?
In Senate-only committees, votes are posted online. But this isn’t the case for the House only committees. The rules say a committee vote will be recorded and made public only if a committee member requests it at a meeting. It really makes one wonder what exactly is the House’s opposition to making all committee votes public?
Most of the significant policy issues in the Legislature are dealt with by joint committees of both House and Senate members.
Here is a summary:
The magazine called the House and Senate co-chairs of 15 joint policy committees and requested vote counts for a bill that was recently reported out of that committee, either favorably or unfavorably. Staff in most offices provided the overall vote tallies, some after multiple phone calls. Some revealed how each member voted, others would only release some or none of that information.
In particular, the Election Laws Committee, chaired by John Lawn, was the one committee that refused to provide any information on how members voted, on a bill that would let residents vote early in municipal elections. The bill was sent to study, where it will never see the light of day but no information was provided on how individual members voted.
Schoenberg wrote, the chief of staff to Senate chair Barry Finegold of Andover, said Finegold and House chair John Lawn of Watertown agreed not to make individual votes public unless members are informed in advance. As a result, she said she could not reveal the vote total for the early voting bill. “Individuals don’t expect them to be made public.”
Asked about the policy, Lawn said the committee members decided to keep their committee votes private, but anyone who is interested can always ask individual members how they voted. “Each individual committee member can make their vote public as they wish,” Lawn said. “You can ask anybody for their vote.”
Think about that for a moment. Your lawmakers, who work for you and whose job is to take votes on important bills, don’t expect them to be made public? These are lawmakers we elect and who are accountable to their constituents. It’s their job to take votes. Many Committee Chairs, including Rep Lawn enable their members to hide their votes and not be held accountable to the people who elect them to office. This is truly a perverted system.
My promise is that I will not be a part of this culture. One of my goals will be to help build the political will for more openness and transparency and to develop a standard system for the House so that committee votes are made public consistently and are not subject to the whim of the committee chairs.