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Sunday, March 17, 2024

The dire need to reform RI's open records law

Full and timely disclosure necessary to build public trust

By John Marion, Rhode Island Current

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) weaponized
the APRA to cover up its shady land deals. Here is
one of many examples where ex-Town Administrator Mark
Stankiewicz abused loopholes in the law to hide information
from the public. 
The emergency closure of the Washington Bridge has wrought havoc for many Rhode Islanders. The traffic has been unfathomably bad. The government’s response has been lackluster at best. The adverse effects on East Providence businesses have been severe. I personally spent over four hours in traffic on that fateful December day when the bridge was first shut down. 

Earlier this year, several news outlets sent the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) public records requests seeking information about the agency’s response to the bridge closure. The RIDOT charged WPRI 12 and the Providence Journal hundreds of dollars for access to the records — and, strangely, did not charge the Boston Globe at all. 

Following reporting about the inequitable fines, and the public outcry those stories yielded, Gov. Dan McKee ordered the RIDOT to give the news outlets a refund. Several news outlets appealed their charges to Attorney General Peter Neronha but his office responded that under the current law they couldn’t force the fines to be waived.

Though this is the most recent and high-profile case of an agency charging a news outlet for records, it’s certainly not the first. As noted by WPRI, the Boston Globe previously disclosed that it paid $229 for records used in a recent article about sexual harassment complaints made against an Ethics Commission nominee. 

As inconvenient, poorly-planned, and downright annoying as this bridge closure has been for all of us, there is a single silver-lining to this catastrophe: It has made Rhode Islanders concerned about public records access for the first time in over a decade. 

And fortunately, our lawmakers have the opportunity to make key improvements to the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) this session. Sen. Lou DiPalma and Rep. Patricia Serpa have introduced legislation that would overhaul the APRA. 

Among the more than four dozen changes in the bill, it would allow someone requesting records to ask the responsive agency to waive any fees if the request is in the public interest. Under the current law you have to go to court to request such a waiver — a costly and time-consuming process. 

The Washington Bridge failure has exposed other ways APRA is not up to the job. Many of the records reporters ultimately received were significantly redacted. Under current law the government only needs to list what parts of the law allow for redaction, without tying the information being redacted to a specific exemption. 

The APRA bill before the General Assembly would require the government to tell the requester why a specific redaction was needed, or why a specific record was withheld. That will help journalists, and the public, get a better idea of what is being withheld.

The Washington Bridge wasn’t the first time people had difficulty getting public records from RIDOT. Pedestrian safety advocates asked RIDOT for statewide traffic accident data, but were denied, even though every police department in the state reports that information to RIDOT. 

Clever reporting by ecoRINews exposed that while RIDOT withheld the information from the advocates and researchers, it shared it with former vendors. The APRA bill would require disclosure of accident data, so we can try to make our roads safer for all users.

It’s not just state government that is less forthcoming with public records, local government can be opaque too. Recently a reporter for The Public’s Radio requested the legal bills from the town solicitor in Westerly. The reporter received 386 pages of redacted records that didn’t show a single thing the town’s lawyer charged for. The APRA bill will narrow the exemption used to withhold that information. The public deserves to know what work lawyers are charging government to do. 

APRA is also a police accountability tool, and the bill will make it a more useful one. For the first time it will allow, under limited circumstances, for the release of 911 tapes. When police are involved in a use of force incident it will require that body cam footage, with limited exception, is released in 30 days. And it will make clear that final reports of police misconduct are public records, as the Supreme Court of Rhode Island has ruled in multiple cases. 

These are just a few examples, drawn from current events, that demonstrate the need for public records reform. APRA is a key tool for government accountability in Rhode Island, and we need to keep it sharp. That’s why the General Assembly needs to pass, and McKee needs to sign, S2256 and H7181



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.