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Rhode Island General Assembly approves changes to public records law

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—In an effort to increase government transparency, the General Assembly passed a bill to overhaul the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) Wednesday morning (H 7555 Substitute A/4), winning approval from open government advocates who have been working to reform the law. The bill was a result of many months of meetings and negotiations and has been supported by New England First Amendment Coalition, Rhode Island ACLU, Common Cause Rhode Island, ACCESS/RI and others.

The new law seeks to make more government records public even if they are in the category of “personnel records” or those records “identifiable to an individual” so long as they do not constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”.  This standard comes from the federal Freedom of Information Act; somewhat similar language is contained in the public records laws of Connecticut and New Hampshire.  It also clarifies that contracts with public employees and pension data is public information.  Rosanna Cavanagh, Executive Director of New England First Amendment Coalition says, “This is a significant victory for the public’s right to know.  Having this information in the public sphere is an essential check on government spending.”

The APRA was adopted in 1979 when Rhode Island lagged behind nationally as the second to last state to pass a public records law.  “It has been fourteen long years since the General Assembly has made comprehensive revisions to the open records statute,” says Steven Brown, Executive Director of Rhode Island ACLU.  “It is therefore gratifying to see the many changes contained in this bill that would strengthen the public’s right to examine the operations of its government.”

“It is up to the Governor now,” says John Marion of Common Cause/Rhode Island.  “I hope that Governor Chafee will prove that he is committed to bringing greater transparency to Rhode Island as he told the public he was in his campaign.”

The new bill also makes police log information available within a quicker time frame.  Information such as the arrestees’ name, date of birth, address, charges, and arresting officer will be available in a 48 hour period (except on weekends).  Under the current law it is only available within 10 days, though in practice police departments give that information routinely within a short time frame.

The bill also requires greater training and certification of public records officers at state agencies, increases penalties for knowing and reckless violation of the law, and clarifies that individuals do not have to reveal their identity or a reason for making a public records request.  These are forms of intimidation and delay and have no place in a transparent government.

Other changes sought by advocates did not gain approval in this law including making public “correspondence of elected officials in their official capacities” and shortening the time frame for record production from 10 to 7 days.  Says Mark Murphy of the Rhode Island Press Association “RIPA recognizes that while the revisions to the Access to Public Records Act are not all we had hoped for, they are a significant improvement over current law and go a long way toward making government in Rhode Island more transparent and accountable.”
“Specifically, RIPA believes that the addition of the ‘balancing test’ that is based on the federal Freedom of Information Act, as well as the expansion of public records to include public employment contracts, among other changes, are important updates.”  New England First Amendment Coalition, Rhode Island ACLU, Common Cause Rhode Island, and Rhode Island Press Association support the revised APRA and join in urging the governor sign it into law at his earliest convenience.

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