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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Audit faults Charlestown and five other municipalities for violation of open records law

Law requires somebody to be in charge of compliance
Make Your Own Invisible InkBy Will Collette

Rhode Island’s open records law requires that every public agency, large and small and including all municipalities, must have a person who is properly trained listed with the Attorney General’s office as the one who is responsible for responding to requests for records and general compliance with the law.

Charlestown’s Home Rule Charter says that person must our Town Clerk, the position currently held by Amy Rose Weinreich.

However, according to a recent audit of public agencies in Rhode Island, Charlestown was among six municipalities and ten public agencies with no one identified as the responsible person with the Attorney General’s office.

Normally, you could blow this off as a simple paperwork technicality. That’s what Attorney General’s spokesperson Amy Kempe did in responding to the audit’s findings:
“It’s clear that public bodies and state agencies take APRA very seriously. They want to be in compliance, and…I’m confident that any individual or public body that was unaware that they needed to provide the form every single year is aware now.”
However, the issue of who’s in charge in Charlestown was at the heart of a very serious breach of the state’s open records law just one year ago. I received an e-mail response from Amy to my standing request for town records pertaining to various litigation (Whalerock was hot at the time). She said, in a nutshell, that the Town Clerk no longer had possession of copies of documents filed in Charlestown’s court cases.

After going back and forth with her and with Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz, the town’s position hardened – those records were no longer in Amy’s hands but rather in the possession of Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero. Ruggiero took the position that he was not subject to the open records law because, he claimed, he was not employed by the town (citing the fact that he doesn’t get employee benefits as a proof).

Since the records were no longer in Amy’s hands, despite the clear language of the Town Charter and in Ruggiero’s hands, who despite being on contract as Town Solicitor, claims no employment relationship with the town, I could basically go screw myself.

Ruggiero also made the alarming claim that he had the right, as a private agent, to decide which court records he would allow the Town (never mind pain-in-the-ass types like me) would be able to see.

I went through the appeal procedures set out in the state Access to Public Records Act and, after getting the run-around, took the matter to the State Attorney General.

It was not a difficult case for the AG to judge and his decision (click here) was that Charlestown cannot take public records off the table by hiding them with the Town Solicitor, notwithstanding his claim that he was not a town employee – a claim the AG’s also found to be wrong:
“Mr. Ruggiero, as attorney and agent for the Town, cannot shield documents responsive to an APRA request that has been directed to the Town even if the Town itself (as opposed to its agent) does not physically maintain the requested records. Even if Mr. Ruggiero deems it unnecessary to provide the Town with copies of documents involved in the prosecuting or defending of the Town’s litigation matters, as its agent, Mr. Ruggiero and/or the Town must respond to the APRA request and the Town must provide public records maintained by its agent….Accordingly, the Town’s response was a violation of the APRA.” [Emphasis added].
Since the Attorney General issued his ruling, I have been getting requested records – which of course are the basis for so much of my reporting on Charlestown town government – from Town Clerk Amy Weinreich, with review by Town Administrator Stankiewicz and Solicitor Ruggiero.

However, it is disturbing that Charlestown has apparently not complied with the requirement of state law to establish that Town Clerk Amy Weinreich is, in fact, the person responsible for access to public records and is appropriately trained.

This violation of state requirements pales when compared to, for example, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s extraordinary efforts to stonewall requests for information about the hedge fund managers she had entrusted with billions of state public pension dollars.

However, the lack of transparency, the failure to follow the rules and the questions these lapses generate about what’s really going on in town government are hardly in keeping with the stated principles of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, which has ruled Charlestown since 2008.
Here’s what the CCA Party says it believes in:

Note that this year’s CCA Platform substantially downplays “transparency” and “efficiency” which used to be CCA Party watchwords. Since they haven’t been able to actually practice what they preach, they simply change what they preach.

I have asked Amy and Town Administrator Stankiewicz to comment on the audit’s finding by August 4th in time to be included in this article. They have not responded.