Sunshine Week in Rhode Island: Cloudy with a Chance of Stonewalls

The following blog post is one of seven that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.

By Steven Brown

brownRhode Island got around to passing an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) in 1979, making it the 49th state in the country to do so, beating only Mississippi to the punch. It sometimes seems that we are still trying to catch up. This tardiness seems deeply embedded in both a political and bureaucratic culture that often simply does not take the public’s right to know seriously.

When, after a 10-year battle, the R.I. General Assembly finally enacted comprehensive amendments to APRA in 2012, it was a cause for celebration. But as we celebrate Sunshine Week, it is worth remembering that eternal vigilance is the price not only of liberty, but of transparency as well.

Consider just a few of the headlines since 2012 that demonstrate the long way we still have to go to make open government a reality in Rhode Island:

* An audit conducted by a coalition of R.I. open government groups to examine compliance with the 2012 amendments found rampant violations of the law, prompting the groups — just as a start — to file complaints against 14 state and municipal agencies with the Attorney General’s Office, the agency responsible for enforcing APRA. Those complaints allege a total of 53 APRA violations, ranging from failure to post written APRA procedures on official websites to records requests that were fulfilled more than 40 days late.

* The audit also found that six municipalities and 10 out of 24 surveyed state and quasi-public agencies failed to certify, as the 2012 law mandated, having any employees trained to grant or deny public record requests.

* When records aren’t denied outright, agencies can always try to price requesters out of the market. A pending ACLU lawsuit on behalf of a small community group is challenging the state police for requiring the organization to agree to pay $1,500 in order to search for requested records dealing with the important public issue of police collaboration with immigration agents.

* Adding insult to injury in the state’s bleak enforcement of APRA, the attorney general recently held that public bodies can charge members of the public for the time it takes to compose a letter denying an open-records request.

* The state judiciary, adopting rules governing electronic filing of, and access to, court documents, has made it much easier for attorneys to keep court filings confidential and much harder for members of the public to access court records.

* For all the good amendments adopted in 2012, too many were left lying on the negotiation floor. As controversy surrounds Hillary Clinton’s use (and deletion) of a private email account to conduct government business, APRA still completely exempts any correspondence, which includes emails “of or to elected officials in their official capacities.” (Taken to its extreme, a governor’s veto letter could be deemed confidential under the Act.)

Celebrate Sunshine Week? Absolutely. But let’s also use the occasion to dedicate ourselves to working even harder to let the sun shine in.

Steven is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

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