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A year later, exemptions chipping away at R.I. open records law

John MarionBy John Marion,  executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE – A year ago Rhode Island open government advocates were celebrating a huge milestone. We had won the first large scale reform of our open records law, the Access to Public Records Act since the late 1990s.  And while we didn’t get everything we wanted in the bill, we did get into the law a balancing test for the first time.

A year later things aren’t so sunny for the APRA.

Two problems have emerged; one involves implementation of the new balancing test, and another involves legislative attempts – and successes – at carving further exemptions to the law.

Like many states, Rhode Island responded to the mass killing in Newtown, Conn., by seeking to beef up its gun control laws. But among the bills proposed, one focused on exempting school safety plans from APRA. Despite pleas from advocates that the bill went too far, and interfered with the rights of parents to know how their children are being protected, the Assembly passed the broad exemption and Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently signed the legislation. (See accompanying story.)

As high stakes testing took center stage in Rhode Island, the General Assembly took up exempting teacher evaluations from APRA.  Again, over the pleas of open government advocates who urged that the new balancing test should prevent the unwarranted release of personal information, the General Assembly passed the new exemption and it was signed into law.

Those two new exemptions bring the total 28 in the Rhode Island APRA. A classic two steps forward, one step back.

In addition to the new carve outs, we have also seen problems with implementation of the new balancing test. Journalists have reported problems with police departments, particularly in the capital city of Providence, withholding information based on the belief that the balancing test compelled them to do so.

Recent publicity of the problem seems to have brought resolution to the most high profile incident, but open government advocates are keeping alert for other possible implementation problems.

Open government is a never ending battle, and Rhode Island, once again, proves that maxim.