FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | email@example.com
Calling Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s two-and-a-half-month old executive order giving public bodies extra time to respond to open records requests “unwarranted and extremely damaging to the public interest,” the New England First Amendment Coalition and other media and open government organizations today called on her to immediately rescind the order.
The Access to Public Records Act gives public bodies 10 business days to respond to a request for records, and an additional 20 business days if it would constitute an “undue burden” to reply in that initial timeframe.
However, the governor’s executive order has given agencies 20 more business days to respond, which, the letter notes, means that important records can be withheld from the public for almost two-and-a-half months. The order, issued in mid-March, was initially scheduled to last a month, but has been extended twice.
The letter to the governor took issue with the justifications she had offered for keeping the executive order well beyond its original end date:
The stated rationales that your office recently provided the New York Times for renewing this EO only heighten our concerns. One reason given was that with “many employees  working around the clock supporting the crisis at hand, it severely impacts our ability to both attend to the crisis and meet [APRA] deadlines.” This implies that the public’s right to know is somehow in conflict with dealing with the crisis, when just the opposite is true: government transparency is more, not less, critical during emergency situations, and has a major role to play in these times. Suggesting that prompt compliance with APRA is a distraction from other government responsibilities trivializes the statutorily-embedded notion that the public’s right to know is a “principle of the utmost importance in a free society.” R.I.G.L. §38-2-1.
Your office also suggested that the harm to the public in delaying access to key documents relating to the crisis, such as government contracts, was overblown because the press has “ample opportunity to hold the administration accountable” through your daily press conferences where reporters can “address anything that was unclear.” But to equate news conference availability with public record access is a dangerous and disingenuous non sequitur. It’s hard to ask meaningful questions about a document that’s unseen. In any event, the executive order allows agencies to delay access to any public record, not just those relating to the pandemic-related focus of your news conferences.
Acknowledging that “a temporary extension may have made sense at the beginning of the crisis, the 20-business-day extension already written into the statute is . . . more than sufficient at this stage of the emergency to address any burdens posed by a 10-day deadline.” As a result, the groups said, rescission of the order was essential “[i]n light of the message of indifference that this action is communicating to public bodies about, and the toll it is taking on, the public’s right to know.”
The groups signing the letter were ACCESS/RI, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, NEFAC, League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Press Association and the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association.
Calling for an end to public record request delays is just one example of how NEFAC is helping to educate and keep communities informed during this public health crisis. Other efforts include:
• Calling on officials in Maine to release localized COVID-19 case data.
• Providing First Amendment experts and journalists to educators throughout the region to help with the increase in remote classes.
• Explaining the responsibilities of government during the pandemic despite technological “learning curves.”
• Offering free online classes on the First Amendment and open government during times of public crisis.
• Calling for more detailed coronavirus case data in Massachusetts.
• Supporting a free legal hotline for New England journalists covering the pandemic.
• Writing an op/ed for The Boston Globe that spotlighted the increasing secrecy within all levels of government.
• Expressing concern over Rhode Island’s decision to suspend the state’s open meeting law.
• Joining more than 100 open government advocates to demand transparency and opportunities for public oversight during the health crisis.
• Reminding New England governors that news organizations are essential businesses and should be allowed to operate during state-wide lock-downs.
• Calling on Rhode Island Gov. Raimondo to provide more access to journalists covering her daily briefings on the pandemic.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.