By Edward Fitzpatrick
Rhode Island celebrated “Sunshine Week” recently, but when it comes to open government in Rhode Island these days, the more accurate description might be “Sunshine: Weak.”
The Providence Journal detailed the dark days in a March 10 special report, “Transparency Under Assault: Government Secrecy in Rhode Island.”
Reporters Tom Mooney and Amanda Milkovits told us about two Rhode Island residents who ran into roadblocks in trying to get internal-affairs reports from the Pawtucket police. They showed us how former Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin’s office had blacked out just about every word of an innocuous memo about lapel pins. And they told us how the East Greenwich Town Council was cited seven times in about a year for violating open-meetings laws before finally facing a fine.
The report provided a perfect primer for a March 23 panel talk, “Learn from the Experts: How to use Rhode Island’s Public Records and Open Meetings Laws.”
It was encouraging to see more than 50 people turn out a cold, windy Saturday morning to hear from Milkovits, WPRI 12 reporter Dan McGowan and The Valley Breeze Managing Editor Ethan Shorey. Common Cause Rhode Island hosted the “Demystifying Democracy” event along with ACCESS/RI, the RI ACLU, the League of Women Voters of RI, the RI Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition. I was the moderator, so I’ll skip right to the end and give you the take-away from each panelist.
“Ask for what you want and don’t give up when you are told no,” Milkovits said. “It just can’t just be the media who is out here looking for public records or going to these meetings. It has to be you. It can’t just be us all the time. And you have a right to this information. You have a right to know what your government is doing.”
“These are your records – all of this stuff is publicly funded,” said McGowan, who has since begun working at The Boston Globe. “In Providence, we hear a lot about various neighborhood things happening – a fight over zoning – so sometimes it does help to have an interested party, somebody who is just an affected neighbor, be able to put in some questions. When you get stonewalled, then you know you are probably on to something. And that’s when you should call me.”
“Or me,” Milkovits added.
Shorey said members of the public might well know more about the state Access to Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act than many public officials.
“Just show up and encourage public officials to do it right,” he said. “If you read a story about how The Valley Breeze is challenging something or one of these news outlets, just encourage them. Say, ‘Thank you for doing the right thing,’ or ‘Please do the right thing the next time.’ Because that feedback from people, other than us annoying reporters, is really important.”
Milkovits explained that former state Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick, filed a request for information about how Kilmartin’s office spent $59 million in Google settlement money that it had received for its role in exposing a shady prescription-drug marketing technique. Kilmartin’s office justified heavily redacting an inter-office document about the purchase of lapel pins and challenge coins by calling it a “memorandum” that would be exempt from disclosure.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, has said that this legal interpretation “could mean that thousands of state and municipal documents that we normally receive would end up becoming exempt,” Milkovits said. “The ACLU has called this something that could end up becoming one of the most significant challenges to the public’s right to know.”
She said the ACLU eventually received an unredacted copy of the lapel pin document, and the new attorney general, Peter F. Neronha, plans to review how that matter was handled.
“Learning how to use public records is really just going after it over and over again,” Milkovits said. “All of us have stories of success, all of us have stories of beating our heads against a wall – trying to find a door, finding out it’s locked and looking for a window.”
Speaking of locked doors, Shorey told about being locked out of a Pawtucket School Committee meeting in 2013. “I showed up. The door was locked. The lights were off. I started ringing the bell,” he said. “The only thing I didn’t do during that time was go throw rocks at the second floor window.”
The attorney general’s office determined the School Committee had violated the Open Meetings Act but did not pursue a fine because it didn’t consider the violation “knowing and willful,” Shorey said. The School Committee violated the Opening Meetings Act again about six months later, and although Shorey said he’d warned the School Committee chair, the attorney general did not consider it a “knowing and willful” violation.
“A lot of it just comes down to enforcement and having a tougher stance,” Shorey said. “But it doesn’t happen.”
McGowan noted legislation is now before the General Assembly that would strengthen the Open Meetings Act. Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, D-Warwick, and House Judiciary Chairman Robert E. Craven, D-North Kingstown, has introduced Senate Bill 471 and House Bill 5702 to make a variety of improvements.
For example, McGowan said, “A board wouldn’t be able to just say, ‘We are worried about litigation, so we are going to meet in executive session and discuss everything.’ There has to be something in writing, a threat of a lawsuit.”
The bill also calls for livestreaming more meetings. “Remember, not everybody is paid to go to the school board, and unfortunately there are way fewer of us (reporters) than ever,” McGowan said. “So it would expand the requirements in terms of what has to be recorded.”
Rhode Island has seen some dark days, but spring is here. It’s time to let the sunshine in.
Edward Fitzpatrick is director of media and public relations at Roger Williams University and a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors. This post originally appeared on the university’s First Amendment blog.
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.
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