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Tuesday, February 21, 2023

New legislation may end open records abuses by Charlestown town government

Bill would shred iron curtain erected by the CCA and their beloved ex-town administrator

By Will Collette

Sunshine cleanses
Dozens of loopholes in the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) take away from citizens’ right to receive and read public records. New legislation offers hope that most of those loopholes may soon be repealed.

House and Senate versions of a major bill to reform the state open records law have been introduced by prominent leaders Sen. Louis DePalma and Rep. Joseph Solomon who consulted with good government groups such as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the RI Press Association, Access Rhode Island and the First Amendment Coalition.

This should be seen as a serious effort, given the high rank of the sponsors and the quality of the bill’s backers. I wish it speedy passage.

Before Charlestown Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz decided to bail on Charlestown, he used the APRA loopholes to the maximum extent possible to protect his CCA overlords. 

Stankiewicz denied several inquiring citizens access to public records on such topics as town finances, whether there was any evidence to support the CCA’s Charlestown Choo-choo hoax, the background on Ruth Platner’s shady land deals, the town’s relationship with quarry owners who have rocked the town with blasting and the decision making behind which roads will receive town maintenance.

Stankiewicz used the APRA loopholes targeted in the new legislation to deny access by:

1.       💩 Blacking out huge swaths of text, thus turning documents into gibberish;

2.       💩 Denying requests for any documents to, from or by elected officials even if the elected official was simply sent a copy of an e-mail;

3.       💩 Charging exorbitant amounts for searching, reviewing and redacting town documents that are subject to release;

4.       💩 Refusing to grant any waivers of fees in the public interest.

Stankiewicz even stonewalled Town Council members – at least to those council members who weren’t part of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance. 

Stankiewicz frequently made it difficult for Town Council President Deb Carney to get information she needed to do her job by ignoring or stalling on her requests, or treating her requests as ordinary APRA requests and using the loopholes to block her access.

Classic example of a Charlestown's response to an open
records request. Because council members are on the
recipient list, Stankiewicz ruled the entire document
was not subject to release without redactions.
The proposed legislation would end this.
In my own 50 years strategic research experience, I have never run into such a total stonewall on public access at any level of local, state and federal government.

But apparently, Charlestown isn’t the only Rhode Island town to abuse the state open records law. The way this legislative proposal zeroes in on abuses so prominent in Charlestown tells me information roadblocks are a widespread problem across the state.

The legislation would dramatically roll back the exemption for the communications of elected officials. Only their direct communication with constituents would be exempt, but not the letters, e-mails and other documents if they pertain to official business. No more big black-outs.

The Stankiewicz policy of using exorbitant fees to turn away public records requests would be drastically curbed. The amount of free search and retrieval time would be doubled from one hour to two hours. The person requesting records can no longer be charged for time staff spend rejecting or redacting documents.

The cost of producing a hard copy of a record is reduced from 15 cents a page to a nickel!

The legislation also makes a public interest exemption official – Stankiewicz allowed Progressive Charlestown to receive free electronic records for years until he was apparently ordered by his masters to clamp down on records release.

Costs for search and retrieval would be waived if the documents are in the public interest and not commercial.

Other elements of the bill would make it easier to gain access to police internal affairs reports, police body camera footage and 911 calls.

WPRI reports that The bill would make subpoenas sent to government bodies or public officials public record, a provision Senator DiPalma acknowledged was prompted in part by Gov. Dan McKee’s refusal to disclose whether his administration was subpoenaed in connection to a controversial education contract last year.”

Simply introducing a bill doesn’t make it law. It’s a hopeful sign that this bill is being simultaneously introduced in both Houses by influential sponsors who have the backing of important good government organizations. These bills will have to go through the committee process and then a full floor vote. If both houses pass the same bill, it goes to McKee for his signature.

There is no guarantee that something might go wrong along the way, or even at the end. Since part of the motivation for this bill was McKee’s conduct, he might decide to veto it.

But I do hope it will pass. In the meantime, Charlestown doesn’t need to wait. On its own, Charlestown could put the basic elements of the legislation into effect. 

Over the past two years, the Attorney General’s office has told Charlestown that state law sets the floor and not the ceiling for how the town chooses to disclose requested public records. Under that advice, Charlestown can open up more town records and make the changes the new legislation proposes NOW.

Stanky is gone and so should his bad policies (instigated by the CCA) on open and transparent government. Let him try that crap in his new job with Berkley, MA.