The following blog post is one of six that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Linda Lotridge Levin
While we celebrate open government each Sunshine Week, it’s important to publicize right-to-know concerns and advocate for transparency year-round. In Rhode Island, that should include a serious consideration of the state’s freedom of information laws and how they can be improved.
Last fall ACCESS/RI, a coalition of organizations working to keep the workings of government in the state transparent, decided it was time to review the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act with the intention of amending it. It’s been almost two decades since significant updates have been made to the statute and a lot, especially in the field of technology, has since changed.
The ACCESS board of directors set about looking at the act line by line. Board member John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, studied similar laws in other states and determined changes were definitely needed in the Rhode Island law. He compiled a number of proposed amendments, which the board discussed over several sessions. Marion said that the amendments attempt to meet the expectations that citizens have on how technology can improve access to government.
One major change to the law would require municipalities to create online message boards or similar applications for members of public bodies to communicate or exchange information with each other in real time. The message, viewable by the public, would remain on the site for 366 days. The message board would be owned by the government body and would be prominently displayed on the body’s primary Internet page. However, no postings to the message site would be considered a meeting of the public body. Marion said that the online message board idea was taken from a 2013 change made by the Texas legislature and has been successfully implemented by the Austin, Texas, city council.
Under the amended law, as of Jan. 1, 2018, all public bodies will be required to digitally record their meetings, and the recordings will be posted to their websites not more than 72 hours after the meeting adjourns. The closed sessions would be recorded and archived and be available for inspection.
The amendments also would extend the statute of limitations for filing a complaint from 180 days to 365 days from the date of public approval of the minutes of the meeting at which the alleged violation occurred.
The law now states that the court may impose a fine of no more than $5,000 against a public body or any of its members found to have committed a willful and knowing violation of the law. One of the amendments would impose a civil fine not to exceed $1,000 against a public body found to have recklessly violated the law. The ACCESS board felt it was important to create this reckless standard to give the law more teeth.
In addition to changes to the Open Meetings Act, ACCESS proposed changes to the Access to Public Records Act based on findings from an audit on local and state bodies’ compliance with the law. ACCESS and MuckRock collaborated to complete the audit in 2014. While far less sweeping than the changes to the OMA, the amendments to APRA help strengthen the law.
Steven Brown, an ACCESS board member and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, parsed the audit’s findings and compiled the amendments to APRA. The proposal would significantly reduce fees that agencies could charge requesters. It also includes a provision relating to the withholding of any document or portion of a document. The new language reads:
[T]he public body shall identify each document withheld; state the statutory exemption claimed; and explain how disclosure would damage the interests protected by the claimed exemption.
Another amendment would allow the Superior Court, which has jurisdiction over APRA issues, to impose a fine up to $100 for each day the records were improperly withheld. It also may award compensatory and punitive damages.
Linda is president of ACCESS/RI. The organization includes representatives from the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, the ACLU of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.