An opportunity to make meaningful changes to open records act
This week marks National Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.
As Attorney General, I am statutorily responsible for enforcing the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) and Access to Public Records Act (APRA). I take this responsibility very serious, and I have committed resources to educate government personnel and members of the public about these important laws and to facilitate compliance with their requirements.
The Open Government Unit within the Office of Attorney General investigates complaints against public bodies in Rhode Island for violations of OMA and/or APRA. In 2011, the Unit investigated 115 open government complaints and issued 38 findings under OMA and 39 findings under APRA. In total, we determined that APRA was violated 22 times last year and OMA was violated on 19 occasions.
Also in the past year, we continued to encourage open government through outreach and education, including hosting an introduction to the open government laws in January 2011 aimed at newly elected and appointed officials, presenting the annual Open Government Summit in July and distributing “The Attorney General’s Guide to Open Government,” a reference manual relied upon by both newly elected and seasoned members of public bodies, legal counsels and citizens, throughout the year.
Our Open Government Summit drew nearly 400 attendees and, for the first time, was streamed live on the Internet to countless Rhode Island citizens. This proactive approach positively impacted public bodies and citizens alike by encouraging open dialogue, which enables more government business to be performed in an open and public manner. Moreover, our website allows the public to search all of our open government findings and opinions.
Each legislative session, there is an earnest attempt by many interested parties – law enforcement, good government groups, the press, the ACLU and legislators – to amend the state’s current APRA to make it more responsive to the public and make government more transparent. I believe we have a real chance this legislative session of making good, meaningful changes and updates to the current statute.
As part of my legislative package, I drafted and submitted H7828/S2652 – An Act Relating to Public Records. This act makes various amendments to chapter 38-2 (“Access to Public Records”) to advance our current APRA law and provide training to all public bodies regarding APRA. I am grateful to our sponsors, Representative Donald Lally and Senator James Sheehan, for their commitment to working to improve transparency in our government.
First, my proposed amendment significantly alters the individually identifiable exemption of APRA. Under current law, all documents identifiable to an individual are not public. I would change this to provide that all records of this nature would be public unless disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Second, this amendment provides that all pension records of public bodies are public records; currently, only information regarding pensions systems created by the General Laws is subject to APRA disclosure.
My proposed amendment also addresses APRA’s law enforcement exemption. Currently, the Office interprets the exemption to provide that the face sheet and initial narrative report of an arrested adult is public. Despite guidance by this Office, there have been some concerns expressed that law enforcement agencies may be interpreting this differently. Therefore, we have added language that clearly defines “records or reports reflecting the initial arrest.”
I also seek to provide greater protections for those requesting and providing public records. First, the proposed amendment would require that public bodies identify a public records officer, require the development of procedures to request a public record and where to make such request. Further, it would require public bodies to certify that public records officers and employees have received training on the act.
Finally, I propose increasing the fines for a knowing and willful violation from $1,000 to $5,000, and adding a fine of $2,000 for reckless violations.
I am committed to creating a greater level of openness in government. I believe this legislation will make government more transparent and more participatory. And, I believe with greater transparency and public participation, we will build a stronger and more accountable government.