Important changes in Rhode Island's Access to Public Records Act

Important reforms have been signed into law by Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, marking the first significant change in the past 14 years to the state's 33-year-old Access to Public Records Act. The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) joined the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), Access/RI, the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, good-government groups and other open government advocates in urging Gov. Chafee to sign the public disclosure law.

 

Access to Public Records Act

Rhode Island enacted its public disclosure law, the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), in 1979, making it the second-to-last state in the nation to adopt a law guaranteeing that most government documents, with narrow exceptions, are available for copying and inspection. The last revisions before the bill were made 14 years ago.

General Assembly passed the legislation that better protects requesters, makes more information public and increases fines on non-complying agencies.

The bill will bolster 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. The most significant change of the new law is the "balancing test" between the public information and the privacy, which is designed to counter a broad exemption of the old law that concealed all "personally identifiable" records from the public.

Major changes: 

  • It requires that agencies pay the legal fees of citizens and journalists who have to sue to get access to public records, and who eventually win those cases. 
  • It makes public personnel records of government officials and employees, except when disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
  • It further clarifies that contracts with public employees and pension data are public information.
  • It allows an individual to remain anonymous when requesting a public record.
  • It requires public agencies to designate a public records officer.
  • It allows memers of the public to request a public record in a preferred format as long as it's not burdensome.
  • It requires certain details of an arrest, such as name, alleged crime and crime scene location, to be relesed in terms of an arrest log within 48 hours on weekdays or 72 hours on weekends. 

 Inside the issue

The issue and the news

 

Gov. Chafee signs R.I. public records bill into law

From WPRI.com:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (June 26, 2012) – Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Tuesday signed a reworked public records bill into law that unseals government employment contracts and creates a so-called "balancing test" for disclosures modeled after federal statute.

The new law is the first significant change to the state's Access to Public Records Act (APRA) in 14 years and Chafee said he hopes it will make government more transparent in Rhode Island.

Also, see NFOIC supports Rhode Island public records improvements.

Ken Bunting, executive director of NFOIC, says: "Every once in a while,  the pro-transparency forces   get to play offense (not defense) in the legislative arena, and the good guys still win. This is great news to hear! Obviously, those of us at NFOIC are especially proud of the role that NEFAC and Access/RI played, as well as all of their on-the-ground, in-the-trenches allies."

You may also want to check out http://www.wpri.com/dpp/target_12/gov-signs-public-records-bill-into-law and http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/06/chafee-signs-bi.html.

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NFOIC throws support behind improvements to Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act; urges Governor Chafee to sign

General Assembly has passed legislation that better protects requesters, makes more information public and increases fines on non-complying agencies.

COLUMBIA, Mo. (June 15, 2012) – The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) has joined other open government advocates and good-government groups in urging Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee to sign into law a bill that would overhaul the state's 33-year-old public disclosure law.

In a letter to Chafee, NFOIC Executive Director Kenneth F. Bunting wrote that a reform bill on his desk “will bring about greater accountability and more transparency for the citizens of Rhode Island.” 

Rhode Island enacted its public disclosure law, the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), in 1979, making it the second-to-last state in the nation to adopt a law guaranteeing that most government documents, with narrow exceptions, are available for copying and inspection. 

The last significant revisions before the bill now awaiting Chafee’s signature were made 14 years ago, according to Steven Brown, Executive Director of Rhode Island ACLU.

Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), called it “a significant victory for the public’s right to know” when the reform bill was sent to Chafee’s desk earlier this week [Wednesday, June 13]. 

NEFAC and another NFOIC member organization, ACCESS/RI, were among open government advocates and good-government groups involved in months of negotiations with legislators and government agencies regarding changes to the APRA. Other groups pushing the changes were the Rhode Island Press Association, the Rhode Island ACLU and Common Cause Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Peter Kilmartin also commended legislators for passing the bill and urged Chafee to sign it.

“Democracy is built on the principle of transparent, open, and accessible government, and is the key to maintaining the public’s trust of its elected officials,” Kilmartin said. “Government must be accountable to the people.”

The bill, if signed by Chafee, will bolster 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.

It would require that agencies pay the legal fees of citizens and journalists who have to sue to get access to public records, and who eventually win those cases. The reforms also make public personnel records of government officials and employees, except when disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." It further clarifies that contracts with public employees and pension data are public information.

“The important reforms in this bill will help to ensure that the principle of open, transparent government is more than a platitude in the state of Rhode Island,” Bunting wrote in the letter to Chafee. 

The National Freedom of Information Coalition is a national network of state freedom of information advocates, citizen-driven nonprofit freedom of information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys. Its mission is to foster government transparency at the state and local level. A unit of the Missouri School of Journalism, the NFOIC is an affiliate of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. NFOIC is based at the University of Missouri, home to the nation’s oldest Freedom of Information Center.

A PDF of this release is available, and for more background and reactions, see:

CONTACT:

Kenneth F. Bunting, Executive Director
NATIONAL FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COALITION
101E Reynolds Journalism Institute
Columbia, MO 65211
573.882.3075; buntingk@missouri.edu

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RI lawmakers strengthen public records law

UPDATES BELOW

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.

UPDATES:
Attorney General Kilmartin praises the General Assembly for passing S2652Aaa
Governor Chafee's letter to Rep. Edith Ajello, outlining his concerns (PDF/56KB)

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Rhode Island's proposed public records bills at odds

From WPRI

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (June 8, 2012) – State lawmakers are considering three different bills to reshape Rhode Island’s public records laws, but differences between the House and Senate version could mean there will be no changes in the statute this year.

Target 12 Investigator Tim White explains how the current law almost got in the way of several WPRI 12 investigations into government waste.

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Latest discussion

The historic overhaul of the Access to Public Records Act

Prior to September 1 (when the legislation took effect), 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 charges and the data and the time of arrest. 
 
[...]
 
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.”
Other sources:

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Editorial

Signing of RI records law a bright spot in uneven legislative session

From New England First Amendment Coalition
 
An expanded Rhode Island public records law was a bright spot in a New England's legislative season that saw uneven progress in efforts to shine light on the doings of state governments.
 
The revised Access to Public Records Act signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee introduces a "balancing test" on personnel records or those records "identifiable to an individual" between the public's right to know and an individual's rights to privacy.
 
It also requires the disclosure of "employment contracts,'' for government employees such as the presidents of the state colleges and university and the head of the Economic Development Corporation.
"By expanding the universe of public records, Rhode Island is taking steps to truly make its government more transparent and accountable to the public it represents," said Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
 
Other provisions of the legislation, which takes effect Sept.1, make more information about police arrests available sooner; require more training and certification of public records officers at state agencies; and increase the penalties for "knowing and reckless" violation of the law.
 
Contact: Rosanna Cavanagh, Executive Director of NEFAC
 

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Our effort

NFOIC throws support behind improvements to Rhode Island's Access to Public Records Acts; Urges Governor Chafee to Sign

From National Freedom of Information Coalition

The National Freedom of Information Coalition called on Rhode Island Governor Chafee to sign the improved Access to Public Records Act approved by the General Assembly. In a letter to Chafee, NFOIC Executive Director Kenneth F. Bunting wrote that a reform bill on his desk "will bring about greater accountability and more transparency for the citizens of Rhode Island." 

"The important reforms in this bill will help to ensure that the principle of open, transparent government is more than a platitude in the state of Rhode Island," Bunting wrote in the letter to Chafee. 

Here is the letter: 

Contact: Kenneth F. Bunting, Executive Director of NFOIC
573.882.3075; buntingk@missouri.edu
The National Freedom of Information Coalition is a national network of state freedom of information advocates, citizen-driven nonprofit freedom of information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys. Its mission is to foster government transparency at the state and local level. A unit of the Missouri School of Journalism, the NFOIC is an affiliate of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. NFOIC is based at the University of Missouri, home to the nation’s oldest Freedom of Information Center.
 
New England First Amendment Coalition and Access/RI are members of NFOIC. -- eds
 

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