RI lawmakers strengthen public records law


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — State lawmakers bolstered Rhode Island's open records law by, among other things, expanding the range of information available to the public and increasing fines on public agencies that knowingly flout the law's provisions.

Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, called the adoption Wednesday of the revamped Access to Public Records Act  "a significant victory for the public's right to know."

NEFAC was among the open-government groups involved in months of negotiations on changes to the APRA. They included the Rhode Island ACLU, Common Cause Rhode Island and ACCESS/RI.

Among the provisions considered key by NEFAC and other groups is the requirement that agencies pay the legal fees of people who win public records cases, a provision that had been deleted from an earlier version of the bill causing the advocacy groups to temporarily withdraw their support.

The strengthened act also opens personnel records that are not "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" and clarifies that contracts with public employees and pension data are public information.

"Having this information in the public sphere is an essential check on government spending," Cavanagh said.

The bill now goes to Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee for his signature.

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

Some changes sought by advocacy groups did not make the final version, among them making public "correspondence of elected officials in their official capacities" and shortening the time frame for record production from 10 to 7 days.

Mark Murphy of the Rhode Island Press Association said the changes are not all he'd hoped for but are a significant improvement over current law and go a long way toward making government in Rhode Island more transparent and accountable."

New England First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC— eds.

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Governor Chafee's letter to Rep. Edith Ajello, outlining his concerns (PDF/56KB)