With no info-nudists, RI needs public records lawsMarch 21st, 2011 at 7:00 am by Ted Nesi under General Talk
Every week is Sunshine Week here at Nesi’s Notes, so three cheers for the Projo’s Ed Fitzpatrick, who used his Sunday column to detail the Hall of Mirrors that is Rhode Island’s approach to sharing public information with, you know, the public.
Ed and I – along with the three investigative reporters he interviewed, Jim Taricani, Mike Stanton and WPRI 12′s own Tim White – are intimately familiar with the default secrecy of too many people in positions of authority here and elsewhere. As Ed put it:
I’m talking about the knee-jerk “no” of control-freak government officials, the how-dare-you-ask defensiveness of some press secretaries, the trust-me-I’m-with-the-government arrogance of the elected and the appointed.
Tell it, brother! Here’s Tim’s contribution to the column:
Rhode Island laws make it more difficult for the press to bare secrets and inform the public here, Channel 12 investigative reporter Tim White said.
“Rhode Island has a reputation for being a Petri dish for corruption. Some of it is unfair, a holdover from our history, but a lot of it is justified,” White said. “The best way to fight corruption is to shine the light in dark corners of government. But the laws in Rhode Island take the batteries out of that flashlight.”
As a result, reporters must rely on sources courageous enough to leak documents that would be public record in other states, he said.
White said he has been denied access to time cards, memos and contracts with public officials. “Most recently, we were told by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation we could not have CEO Kevin Dillon’s contract because it is exempt under our public record’s law,” he said.
White said another problem is that the attorney general’s office plays a key role in deciding whether government should release documents such as police records and time cards. “Other states do it differently, like Connecticut which uses a commission – called the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission – made up of lawyers, journalists, members of the public, to decide what is and isn’t a public record,” he said.
It’s human nature to avoid disclosure; we wouldn’t need public records laws if most officials were info-nudists. But they’re not, so we do. And those laws only work if they’re tough and strictly enforced, neither of which is the case in Rhode Island.
Reporters aren’t the only ones who use these tools, either. Providence’s internal auditor himself had to file public records requests in order to obtain financial information from the Cicilline administration, as the Projo reported:
[Former Mayor David] Cicilline initially displayed fiscal discipline, but that rigor disappeared as his administration aged and grew secretive, according to [former Providence Internal Auditor James] Lombardi.
As he tried to plumb the reserve accounts to see what was left, Lombardi recalled, the administration canceled his computer access. He was forced to make one of several formal demands for information that he made under the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act.
He said that he learned, among other things, that the administration was not analyzing its cash flow, and risked the possibility that the city would run out of cash to pay current expenses.
Denying public records requests isn’t the only way officials avoid disclosure, of course; simple stonewalling is used, too. (Remember David Cicilline’s initial refusal to talk about the damning report on Providence’s finances?) A favorite recent example of mine is the EPA keeping Californians in the dark about the impact the Japanese nuclear crisis is having on them:
EPA officials, however, refused to answer questions or make staff members available to explain the exact location and number of monitors, or the levels of radiation, if any, being recorded at existing monitors in California. Margot Perez-Sullivan, a spokeswoman at the EPA’s regional headquarters in San Francisco, said the agency’s written statement would stand on its own.
Critics said the public needs more information.
“It’s disappointing,” said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California. “I have a strong suspicion that EPA is being silenced by those in the federal government who don’t want anything to stand in the way of a nuclear power expansion in this country, heavily subsidized by taxpayer money.”