Common Cause, NEFAC urge Chafee to sign public records billJune 13th, 2012 at 1:01 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Pressure is growing on Governor Chafee to sign a compromise reform of Rhode Island’s public records law that passed the House and Senate before they recessed early Wednesday.
The legislation would add a balancing test, modeled on the federal Freedom of Information Act, to the much-derided law. It would allow disclosure of personnel records and other information identifiable to an individual as long as the release isn’t an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Public employees’ contracts and pension records would also be officially classified as public records under the bill, and the fines owed by government bodies for violating the law would increase. Additionally, a judge could award attorney fees to the wronged plaintiff if a public body acts in bad faith.
Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion said his organization “fully supports” the bill and is urging the governor to sign and implement it. “We’ve been working to expand our public records law to make more information public, and this bill clearly does that,” he said.
Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said her group also wants Chafee to sign the legislation. “This is a significant victory for the public’s right to know,” she said. (WPRI 12′s Tim White is a member of the coalition’s board.)
The Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union is also asking the governor to sign the compromise bill, executive director Steven Brown said. Mark Murphy, president of the Rhode Island Press Association, said Wednesday afternoon his organization is also supporting it.
The final compromise was hammered out by Rep. Michael Marcello, whose original bill was backed by the various advocacy groups, and Sen. James Sheehan, whose weaker legislation they opposed. “Good governments provide their citizens with as much accurate and easily obtainable information as possible,” Marcello said.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin lauded Marcello and Sheehan for passing the first major changes to the 33-year-old Access to the Public Records Act since 1998 by quoting Mark Twain: “No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.”
“While Mark Twain penned that line close to 140 years ago, it still rings true today,” the attorney general said.
The House voted 65-2 to pass the public records bill, with only Reps. Daniel P. Gordon, R-Portsmouth, and Robert Watson, R-East Greenwich, voting against it. The Senate voted 35-0 in favor of the legislation.
The bill will now be transmitted to the governor, who can sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. A spokeswoman said Chafee will review the legislation when it reaches his desk.
• Related: RI Senate fast-tracks public records bill you’ve never heard of (June 10)
This post has been updated.
(photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)