Have you ever had trouble getting public information from your government? You shouldn't, but it has at times been a problem here in Rhode Island.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor that took effect on Sept. 1, making significant improvements to the Access to Public Records Act (more commonly known as the open records law), will fix that.
Based on legislation we sponsored in the State Senate and House of Representatives, the APRA changes that are now in effect are expected to make public records easier to obtain. This will make more transparent the actions of all public bodies in the state, from the local level to the state. The executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition has said the changes to the law could make Rhode Island one of the most open governments in New England.
We fought for these improvements to the law because we believe that government does not and should not exist to keep secrets from the public. Instead, it should facilitate the public’s knowledge and understanding about the functions of government. Good governments provide their citizens with as much accurate and easily obtainable information as possible. We believe our changes will make it easier for the public to seek and receive information and make more information that is pertinent to the public readily available.
Among the provisions of the new and improved APRA:
Prior to Sept. 1, all documents identifiable to an individual were not public. The new law will apply a balancing test by providing that all records of this nature would be public unless disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. This is identical to the balancing test in the Federal Freedom of Information Act.
An arrest record must now be provided within 48 hours of a request (72 hours on weekends and holidays), together with basic information pertaining to the arrest of an adult. This provision applies to arrests made five days before a request for records. The basic information to be provided includes such items as the name, date of birth, gender and race of the arrested adult, the charge or charges and the date and time of the arrest.
Various records that were not previously public now will be, including municipal pension records that are not part of the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS), records of payments received by an employee as a result of termination or otherwise leaving employment and employment contracts of public employees.
Public bodies will be required to designate a public records officer. Those who will handle public records requests must receive training and orientation concerning the act and certify compliance to this requirement to the Attorney General.
A public body cannot, as a condition of fulfilling a public records request, require a person seeking public records to give a reason for the request or to provide personally identifiable information about him or herself.
All copying and search and retrieval fees will be waived if a public body fails to comply with a request in a timely manner.
The civil fine for a knowing or willful violation of these provisions will be increased from $1,000 to $2,000.
A $1,000 fine will be imposed against a public body or official found to have recklessly violated the provisions. Until now, there has been no fine for a reckless violation.
When a public body seeks an additional 20 business days to respond to a record request (beyond the initial 10 business days), it must set forth a specific reason why additional time is necessary. Until now, a public body could extend the time to respond up to an additional 20 business days “for good cause” without clearly elaborating the cause.
A court may now award reasonable attorney fees and costs to a plaintiff if the court determines that the public body acted in bad faith. (A judgment in the plaintiff’s favor is not needed.)
The executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, in a recent news story, said the amendments now incorporated in the law will leave Rhode Island “better off and there will be more transparency in Rhode Island government.” Assistant RI Attorney General Michael W. Field, head of the Open Government Unit in the AG’s office, said that, under the new law, “there’s going to be greater accountability from start to finish.”
We are proud to have been involved in enacting these important changes to the law. We have written this article because it is vital that citizens know their rights and exercise those rights to hold public officials accountable. More transparency can only yield greater efficiency and accountability to the citizens of our state.
(James C. Sheehan is the Democratic State Senator in District 36, Narragansett and North Kingstown. Michael J. Marcello is the Democratic State Representative in District 41, Scituate and Cranston.)