Advocates, lawmakers outline changes to strengthen, clarify R.I.’s open records law 

SEN. LOU DIPALMA, a Middletown Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, speaks at the press event for reforming Rhode Island’s public records law at the Statehouse Library on Thursday At left is Rep. Patricia Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat and chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee. Both legislation introduced bills in their respective chambers that would reform the Access to Public Records Act. At right is Michael McDermott, a board member of ACCESS/Rhode Island. /RHODE ISLAND CURRENT/ NANCY LAVIN

Rhode Island’s public records law is having a moment.  

After all, emails, text messages and a startling video showing bouncing anchor rods below Interstate 195 Washington Bridge westbound lanes were what offered a glimpse of how the emergency bridge closure first unfolded. Not to mention the ensuing outrage over the amount of and inconsistency in charges to media outlets who asked for the public documentation [though the outlets were subsequently refunded]. 

As the highway crisis continues to unfold, lawmakers and advocates are rallying not only to fix the broken bridge, but to close loopholes in the law governing access to public records. 

“Public records aren’t public if the public can’t access them,” said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island, speaking at an event at the Statehouse on Thursday. 

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Indeed, while the Access to Public Records Act [APRA] has been on the state’s books since 1978, with substantial changes in 2012, journalists, residents and community groups too often find themselves getting shot down, or overcharged, on requests for public information. 

Companion bills introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly earlier this year by Sen. Lou DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, and Rep. Patricia Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat, lay out more clearly what information agencies have to make available, and for what price. The changes outlined in the reform bills are many: 47, to be precise, from simple tweaks in language to entirely new sections. 

Some of the proposed changes respond to specific instances of perceived abuse or lack of clarity in the existing law — charging different amounts to different media outlets for essentially the same set of emails about the Washington Bridge, for example. Or the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s refusal to hand over information about traffic accidents to volunteers with the Providence Streets Coalition, who hoped to use the data to create a public map showing where pedestrian and cycling accidents had occurred. 

“These kinds of public crash portals are now the norm,” said Liza Burkin, lead organizer for Providence Streets Coalition, naming similar databases available in Massachusetts as well as many Southern and Midwestern states. “The idea that the public should have access to this is not a fringe position.” 

Other changes aim to reflect modern technology which was nonexistent, or at least less heavily relied upon, when the law was last updated more than a decade ago. Police body camera footage is among the new types of records that would be added to the law under the legislation, as well as text messages and emails sent in official government capacity — previously exempt but now subject to sharing unless they are unrelated to official government business. Another nod to the shift to the digital age: requiring public bodies to put online beforehand any documents related to their meetings, like a contract for a new hire or a proposed policy change. 

Many of these updates might seem obvious, and even unnecessary, but the lack of clarity in the law has left journalists and members of the public subject to the whims of the town clerks, attorneys and other individuals who receive the requests to decide how to respond, said Scott Pickering, general manager for East Bay Media Group. 

“There are many government bodies following best practices, but others are not, and they are not required to,” Pickering said. 

The proposal also reduces the cost charged for locating and sharing public records — increasing the number of free hours of work from one to two hours while cutting the cost-per-page for copies of information from 15 to five cents.  

Most pertinent to the recent brouhaha over costs for bridge-related government emails: specifying that fees for records requests “shall” be waived if the person requesting them can demonstrate the information is of public interest. The existing law offers the option that fees “may” be waived for public interest reasons 

This single word change was among the sticking points for similar legislation last year, which failed to advance beyond committee in either chamber. Among the critics was Gov. Dan McKee’s office, which through its general counsel, voiced concern last spring  about asking public agencies to decide what records were of public interest.  

A few months later, his office was forced to turn over emails detailing unprofessional and inappropriate words and behavior by former state officials on a business trip to Philadelphia, after the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General ruled the public interest outweighed privacy protections for the people involved.  

“We did listen,” Steven Brown, executive director for the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, said of concerns raised by McKee’s office and other critics of the bill. “I don’t think government agencies are going to be happy with this, But at the end of the day, the bottom line is, this is the public’s right to know.” 

Andrea Palagi, a spokesperson for McKee’s office, offered a one-line email response on Thursday. 

“The Governor’s Office looks forward to reviewing the details of this legislation,” Palagi said. 

While McKee’s office may not have gotten what it asked for on the language around public interest in the legislation, this year’s version of the legislation includes 21 changes aimed, in part, at assuaging concerns of state officials, police leaders, and other critics. 

“We didn’t make every change asked of us, but we made quite a few,” DiPalma said. 

Examples of compromise include reducing the fines imposed on government agencies that violate the records laws. The new legislation still imposes heftier penalties than what is on the books now, but it’s less than what was proposed last year. And rather than depositing money from fines back to the state general treasury — essentially meaning the state is paying itself — the money would be set aside in a separate account for municipalities to use to assist with complying with state records law. 

A separate proposal by Republican Rep. Brian Newberry, of North Smithfield, would also update the public records law. Newberry’s proposal, as explained in a press release Wednesday, would centralize records requests under the Rhode Island Department of Administration and require a uniform set of fees, while making “reasonable efforts” to put public information online even without receiving a request. 

Marion in an interview Wednesday said he worried the additional layers of oversight required by centralizing records requests within DOA might add time to the already slow process of sharing public information when requested.  

Newberry’s bill had not been formally introduced as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Rhode Island General Assembly website. DiPalma and Serpa’s legislation has been referred to committee in their respective changes, with hearings not yet scheduled. 

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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