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Lawmakers say it’s time to overhaul R.I. public records law

“As we have seen with the Washington Bridge closure, access to public documents is crucial for the public to stay informed about how our state is run and managed,” Representative Patricia Serpa said.

Representative Patricia A. Serpa, left, joined Senator Louis P. DiPalma, right, in advocating for legislation that would make 47 changes to Rhode Island's Access to Public Records Act.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — Coventry parents were furious about the superintendent’s plans to consolidate schools, and when they requested the data that led to that decision, they were asked to fork over $600 for the records, Representative Patricia A. Serpa said.

That amounted to $600 for public information “that they’ve already paid for because they pay taxes,” Serpa said. “It’s absolutely insane — there’s no professional way to say it — and these parents should not be subjected to it.”

Serpa cited that example on Thursday as she joined Senator Louis P. DiPalma in announcing legislation that would make 47 changes to the state’s Access to Public Records Act — including a reduction in copying costs, more free search and redaction time, and the ability to waive all fees when requests are made “in the public interest.”


Thursday’s State House news conference follows controversy over fees charged by Governor Daniel J. McKee’s administration, but later rescinded, for records relating to the Washington Bridge closure.

“As we have seen with the Washington Bridge closure, access to public documents is crucial for the public to stay informed about how our state is run and managed,” said Serpa, a West Warwick Democratic who chairs the House Oversight Committee. “Times change, and so must our laws that grant the public the ability to find out what is going on in Rhode Island.”

DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said much has changed since the Access to Public Records Act was enacted in 1978 and since the law received its last substantial update in 2012.

Those changes include greater use of emails by public officials and the use of body-worn cameras by police, DiPalma said. And he said he saw the challenges to accessing public information when he chaired the Senate oversight committee. “In some regards, we in Rhode Island have a long way to go,” he said.


DiPalma emphasized the importance of providing access to public records, and said, “The public can only trust government when they know what’s going on.” He quoted the late US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who in 1891 wrote: “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.”

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, spoke in favor of the bill, and said public bodies in Rhode Island are charging “excessive fees” for access to records, and he believes it’s done in part to deter people from following through on their requests.

Brown said it’s frustrating to hear public officials cite the burdens of meeting public records requests in defending such fees.

“Taxpayers are paying these public officials to do this job,” he said. “It should be their prime responsibility to be serving the public, and that includes responding to open records requests. So when they ask for additional money to look for records, it seems to me they are just asking for double payment. The public should be entitled to it as a matter of right.”

Among other provisions, the legislation would:

  • Cut the per-page cost of copies from 15 cents to 5 cents
  • Double the amount of free time to search for records, from one hour to two hours
  • Prohibit charging people for the first two hours spent redacting documents
  • Prohibit charging for records requests that are rejected
  • Require agencies to reduce or waive costs for responding to requests that are “in the public interest.”

John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, noted that under current law, a requester must go to court if they are charged and they believe the fees should be waived because they’re in the public interest.


“Of course, going to Superior Court requires money because you have to hire legal representation, which sort of defeats the whole point of asking for the fee waiver,” Marion said. “So, like the federal Freedom of Information Act, the bill allows the requester to appeal that public interest exemption to the agency that provides the records, and it requires the agency to consider the public interest.”

Brown said many requests to public bodies come from commercial entities that are “clearly not directed in the public interest.” But case law on the federal level establishes that members of the media are seen as requesting documents in the public interest, he said.

DiPalma pushed for similar legislation last year, but it went nowhere after facing opposition from Governor Daniel J. McKee’s office, the State Police, and other state agencies. While Thursday’s APRA news conference took place in the State Library, McKee was scheduled to appear across the hall in the State House attending an AARP legislative reception.

Brown said that DiPalma and other advocates met with state officials and other groups who had opposed last year’s legislation, and 21 of 47 proposed changes have been amended in response to the issues they raised.

“We really did attempt to accommodate a lot of the concerns we felt were reasonable,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the bottom line is this is a public’s right to know.”

While some proposals have been changed in response to opposition, two proposals were added in response to recent news articles by ecoRI News and The Providence Journal: One would make traffic accident data public in accordance with federal law. Another would, to the extent allowed by federal law, make public the names of individuals who obtain “preferred license plates” through the governor’s office.


Some of the proposals focus on police accountability and police records. For example:

  • Final reports of police misconduct investigations are public documents, as the Supreme Court of Rhode Island has ruled.
  • Body-worn camera footage must be released, with limited exceptions, within 30 days of a use of force incident.
  • Records from police departments at private colleges and universities subject to APRA.
  • Specifies that non-arrest police incident reports are not presumptively exempt from disclosure

Earlier this week, Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican, announced he will introduce legislation to centralize all public records management and training for state and quasi-public agencies within the Department of Administration.

“It makes sense, especially for a small state,” he said. “It makes it simple.”

Newberry said he is not trying to compete with the DiPalma and Serpa legislation. “We have some ideas, and they have some ideas,” he said. “We are trying to come up with the best possible proposal.”

Newberry’s legislation, which is being drafted, would create a uniform set of fees for all state and quasi-public agencies, and it would encourage the Department of Administration to “make all reasonable efforts to post records which would be public under APRA in an online, searchable database and/or website, to prevent those records from having to be requested in the first place.”

Hawaii consolidated public records requests into one state agency to improve public access and reduce inefficiencies, Newberry said. “We look to emulate that model and bring Rhode Island into the 21st century by creating a searchable information portal for all state government documents that apply to APRA, standardizing and eliminating fees, and abolishing inefficient practices,” he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.