Public records 101

Knowledge is power! Inform thyself!
By PHILIP EIL  |  October 1, 2014


On September 15, the freedom of information advocacy organization, ACCESS/RI, released Access Limited: An Audit of Compliance With the Rhode Island Public Records Laws, a 131-page report examining how Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns, and 24 of our state and quasi-public agencies — from the Airport Corporation to the Department of Health to the State Police — are living up to the state’s recently-enhanced Access to Public Records Act (APRA).

The report, produced with the help of the Boston-based “collaborative news site and public records request platform,” Muckrock, didn’t paint a pretty picture. Among its numerous recommendations for reform was a prescription for “A Change in Culture.” Citing the need to “reverse a deep-rooted attitude of secrecy that seems embedded in too many agencies,” the report’s authors stated, “There can be little question that a culture of indifference — if not outright hostility — to the public’s right to know is a key reason for the less-than-stellar results detailed in this audit. Too many agencies appear to consider complying with open records requests a burden rather than what it actually is and should be — a core mission of their agency.”

Now, before your eyes glaze over from reading words like “audit” and “public records,” let’s talk about what this stuff actually means. Access Limited found that 10 of 24 state and quasi-public agencies audited didn’t have anyone on staff properly trained and certified to handle public records requests. This included the General Assembly — aka, the government body that tinkers with our tax structure, fast-tracked the multimillion dollar bill allowing 38 Studios to happen, and, in general, writes and re-writes the rules by which everyone plays in this state.

The report also found that almost a fourth of the offices surveyed — 32 of 137, including 14 out of 38 police departments — failed to properly post their public record-requesting procedures online. Nearly half of the 39 police departments surveyed failed to respond to requests for arrest logs within the legally-mandated 48 hours (for a weekday request) or 72 hours (for a weekend/holiday request). The report also described troubling in-person requests to law enforcement agencies that were met with erroneous refusals and claims that such information was “confidential” or “no one gets that.”

In a darkly ironic twist, the report found that state Auditor General’s office, which, according to its own mission statement, “exists to support the State Legislature and Federal Government in meeting their constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and accountability of government” was the “worst agency by far” in terms of overall agency compliance with state records laws.

Think about that for a second.

Now is perhaps a good time to tell you that ACCESS/RI President and URI journalism professor emeritus Linda Lotridge Levin calls public records the “bedrock of democracy.” We technically own these police reports and school superintendents’ contracts, she says, “and they’re overseen and taken care of by your employees, whether they’re state employees or local employees.”

“Transparency is absolutely critical a democratic society,” longtime RI ACLU executive director and fellow ACCESS/RI board member Steve Brown adds. “It’s not enough to have elected officials of government agencies doing government work, if you can’t find out exactly what it is they’re doing.”

So this week, given the state’s underwhelming Access Limited performance — not to mention recent alleged beach concessions-contract shenanigans involving a state rep and the former head of the Rhode Island Democratic party; the March 2014 raid by federal agents on former Speaker of the House Gordon Fox’s home and office; the ongoing 38 Studios meltdown; and the leading-in-the-polls mayoral candidacy of twice-convicted Buddy Cianci in Providence — we decided to present a two-part article.

Part one is to simply encourage you to peruse Access Limited, which is available online at Public info advocates tend to be modest, non-showboating folks, so we’re happy to hype this on their behalf. Not only are the findings in the report sweeping, detailed, and disturbing, but it also includes appendices stuffed with forms for filing records requests at offices and agencies from Woonsocket to Westerly. Since, as the report points out, simply finding how to properly make a request can often pose a roadblock, Access Limited’s ready-to-use training wheels make record-combing in Rhode Island exponentially easier for the rest of us.

In that same spirit, we’re happy to introduce the second part of the article. Thanks to help from some local reporters and good-government advocates, we put together a public-info starter kit to help you start digging.

Remember, public records are essentially the receipts for the tax money you fork over every year. You may not always stay home on Saturday nights to read them. But you ought to be able to know where they are and how to retrieve them when you want to.

Half civics lesson, half haunted hayride — this is your Public Records 101 course for the Ocean State.

(Note: the bullet points that aren’t attributed to anyone in the following list come from me, Phoenix news editor, Phil Eil.)

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