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Citing a recent “pattern of disturbingly inadequate” responses to public records requests “on truly critical matters of public import,” five open government organizations have called on Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to issue an executive order that calls on state agencies to “adopt a strong presumption in favor of disclosure in addressing requests for public information.”
In a letter sent Tuesday to Raimondo, the five organizations — ACCESS/RI, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Press Association, New England First Amendment Coalition, and League of Women Voters of Rhode Island — cite three recent incidents in which state agencies addressed Access to Public Records Act requests. The groups called the handling of each of these requests “questionable” and indicative of a “disinterest in promoting the public’s right to know.”
In the first incident, according to the Providence Journal, the state Department of Transportation provided an incomplete response to a reporter’s request for records related to the administration’s hotly debated truck toll proposal, failed to properly request an extension of time to respond, and then denied records without specifying what was withheld or whether there was any information in the withheld documents that could be released, as required by law.
In another instance, the administration denied the release of any records related to the hiring of former state Representative Donald Lally, citing “attorney-client privilege” and an APRA exemption for “working papers.” While the groups said it was reasonable that some documents might not be disclosable, they called the blanket denial of all records “untenable on its face.”
The third incident involves the Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ refusal to release an application filed with the federal government for additional funding for the state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project. The department claimed the application and related documents were “still in development” despite the fact that the application had already been submitted for approval.
“From our perspective, none of [these responses] occupies a ‘shade of gray’ in interpreting APRA. Rather, precisely because they are so clear-cut, they warrant decisive action on your part in order to address the lackadaisical interest in a strong APRA that the responses embody,” the groups argued in the letter.
Representatives from the organizations said that by issuing an executive order emphasizing the Administration’s commitment to open government, Raimondo would better ensure transparency and accountability from state executive agencies.
Linda Lotridge Levin, president of ACCESS/RI, said: “It is incumbent on public officials to make access to public records a priority if they expect to maintain the public’s trust. The instances cited in the letter to the governor show that some public officials choose to remain oblivious to the state’s Access to Public Records Act that mandates that the workings of government remain transparent, accessible and accountable to its citizens. We in ACCESS/RI urge Gov. Raimondo to ensure that members of her administration adhere to the law and to respond in a timely manner to all public records requests.”
Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director, said: “Gov. Raimondo’s first executive order upon taking office addressed compliance with state ethics laws. In passing, it also urged state officers and employees to ‘be mindful of their responsibilities’ under the open records law. Because they have not been mindful, we believe an executive order specifically establishing a presumption of openness in responding to APRA requests will better promote that key responsibility.”
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition added: “This is an opportunity for Gov. Raimondo to remind those working under her leadership that government transparency is a top priority and that the public’s right to know must be protected. These recent APRA responses are concerning and the governor should make clear that the statute needs to be taken more seriously. Timely responses need to be made and records should be disclosed whenever possible. An executive order to this effect would help build trust between the people of Rhode Island and their elected leaders.”
Jane W. Koster, president of the League of Women Voters of RI, stated: “It is of the utmost importance that the citizens of Rhode Island’s ‘right to know’ be protected and broad citizen participation in government be encouraged. The League of Women Voters of the United States and LWVRI believe that democratic government depends upon informed and active participation at all levels of government. It further believes that governmental bodies protect this ‘right to know’ by giving adequate notice of proposed actions, holding open meetings and making public records accessible. The LWVRI believes that Governor Raimondo will act accordingly and alert all in her administration to comply with APRA going forward.”
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 Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Foundation, The Boston Globe and Boston University.