open records

Analysis: The good and bad on Chafee’s transparency website

January 11th, 2013 at 3:15 pm by under Nesi's Notes

​By Tim White

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There’s a lot to like about Governor Chafee’s new transparency website. There’s also room for improvement.

​Read the rest of this story »


Let Tracy Breton be your guide to RI’s new public records law

August 31st, 2012 at 1:00 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Rhode Island’s new public records law takes effect on Saturday. A great rundown from the Projo:

Come Sept. 1, at least on paper, Rhode Island will become a more transparent state.

Before adjourning in June, the General Assembly overhauled the state’s Access to Public Records Act which incorporates a new “balancing test” that public officials will have to use when deciding whether to release records requested by the public. …

It appears that some public bodies, including the Judicial Nominating Commission, will have to revise some operating procedures and release more information. …

The new law will require disclosure of additional details of employment contracts for certain government employees, including presidents of the state colleges and universities. Employees of contractors and subcontractors working on public works contracts are also subject to the amended act. …

It requires police departments to provide basic information about an adult’s arrest within 48 hours of a request, or within 72 hours if a request is made on a weekend or holiday.

Read the rest here. For more information, check out the RI ACLU’s new overview.


What you need to know about the new RI public records law

July 31st, 2012 at 5:00 am by under General Talk

By Tim White

BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) – R.I. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said a record 750 people signed up for this year’s “Open Government Summit” at Roger Williams University. Here are my quick hits and takeaways.

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Senate the roadblock on long overdue RI public records reform

June 7th, 2012 at 10:40 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

After 14 years – and innumerable scandals – are Rhode Island lawmakers finally going to fix the state’s lousy public records law before they adjourn this month?

It remains an open question, and the ever-inscrutable Senate is the holdup. On Wednesday night, the House Judiciary Committee held for further study a strong reform bill [H 7555] written by state Rep. Michael Marcello to let him continue offering concessions to the upper chamber.

“As the legislature moves toward its typical rushed ending, they still have time to do right by the people of Rhode Island and open up more information about government for the citizens,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, part of a large coalition that backs Marcello’s bill.

The Senate is considering two inadequate public records bills of its own – one from Attorney General Peter Kilmartin [S 2652] and another from state Sen. James Sheehan [S 2511]. ”We remain worried that the Senate bills on public records will undermine our hard work unless they are changed substantially,” Marion said.

Tim White told the House committee Wednesday he was “stunned” to discover how many restrictions Rhode Island places on the public’s access to information compared with neighboring Massachusetts. After seeing this blacked-out North Providence police report, Rep. Charlene Lima urged her colleagues to pass the bill.

The Senate must now decide whether it will let Rhode Islanders see what’s being done in their names. Pass along your perspective to Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (sen-paivaweed@rilin.state.ri.us, 401-222-6655) and Senator Sheehan (sen-sheehan@rilin.state.ri.us, 401-885-1988).

• Related: With no info-nudists, RI needs public records laws (March 21, 2011)


Morse: Something rotten in the Bristol County Water Authority

December 21st, 2011 at 6:00 am by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

By Gary Morse

Nearly two years ago, the Bristol County Water Authority moved to get a 12% hike in local water rates. The implications of this fateful request are still reverberating in the East Bay, and the path that led from a utility increase to the threat of a lawsuit against four ratepayers has now become a news story of its own.

In early 2010, BCWA went to the Barrington Town Council to explain the need for such a steep rate increase. (The BCWA Board of Directors is made up of nine directors, with the town councils of Barrington, Bristol and Warren appointing three members each.) By the end of the meeting, Councilor Jeff Brenner was moved to remark: “Yogi Berra has nothing on some of the explanations given here tonight.”

Four East Bay residents – now known as the “East Bay Four” – decided to take the lead and began trying to find out what was really going on. Along with myself, the rest of the East Bay Four are Jeff and Janice Black of Barrington, and Bristol resident Marina Peterson of the East Bay Patriots.

To say that BCWA was not receptive to ratepayer involvement is a gross understatement. Over the course of our two-year quest, certain BCWA representatives were known for yelling at ratepayers who dared to ask questions, in an effort to scare them off and ensure no one would dare come back. BCWA was also paying its attorney handsomely to run interference against the public.

(more…)


Target 12: ‘Who You Know’ shows flaws in public records law

November 11th, 2011 at 5:30 pm by under Nesi's Notes

By Tim White

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The executive director for good government group Common Cause Rhode Island said the Target 12 investigation “Who You Know” highlights why government agencies need to take the public records law more seriously.

“Some [police] departments are very good and some departments aren’t,” said John Marion of Common Cause. “It might quite simply depend on the person you’re dealing with on the day you’re dealing with them.”

In “Who You Know,” Target 12 raised questions about two separate cases of alleged drunk driving and potential favoritism.

There have been several attempts at amending the public records law to include – among many proposed changes – stricter penalties for failing to abide by the law. Marion said though the bills haven’t passed, in recent years it has made it to the floor for a vote.

Read the rest of this story »


A bad day for open government at Providence City Hall

June 24th, 2011 at 2:01 pm by under Nesi's Notes

Find out why in a new story Tim White and I just posted on WPRI.com:

The City of Providence is blocking the public from seeing any email messages sent and received by former Mayor David Cicilline during his final two years in office.

Assistant City Solicitor Amy Crane denied Target 12′s request to see Cicilline’s emails from 2009 and 2010, a period when the city’s finances deteriorated into what his successor has termed a “category five” fiscal emergency.

Crane cited a provision of Rhode Island’s public records law that allows the government to seal “correspondence of or to elected officials with or relating to those they represent and correspondence of or to elected officials in their official capacities.” …

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in 2004, however, that a government body can choose to release documents even if the public records law allows them to be kept under wraps. …

Mayor Angel Taveras refused a request to reverse Crane’s decision and release the emails. “It is the job of the city solicitor’s office to respond to [public records] requests, and the mayor trusts the solicitor’s office to make these legal decisions on a daily basis,” spokesman David Ortiz said in a statement.

Read the full story here.

(photo: Bruce Morin/WPRI)


Why Palin emails might have stayed sealed in Rhode Island

June 16th, 2011 at 4:36 pm by under Nesi's Notes

A few years ago, a rumor circulated that Sarah Palin was thinking about moving to Rhode Island. She may not have realized it, but if she’d been our governor instead of Alaska’s her official emails might never have been released.

That’s because Rhode Island’s pitiful public records law carves out a sweeping exemption for politicians’ official correspondence. Here are the two relevant sections (emphasis mine):

(4) “Public record” or “public records” shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data processing records, computer stored data (including electronic mail messages, except specifically for any electronic mail messages of or to elected officials with or relating to those they represent and correspondence of or to elected officials in their official capacities) or other material regardless of physical form or characteristics made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency. For the purposes of this chapter, the following records shall not be deemed public:

(M) Correspondence of or to elected officials with or relating to those they represent and correspondence of or to elected officials in their official capacities.

“If you take it literally,” the Rhode Island ACLU’s Steve Brown told me, “anything that an elected official sends out or receives in their official capacity could be deemed private. One could argue that many if not all of the emails could be exempt under our law.”

Following a nearly three-year legal battle, Alaska released six boxes of documents this month that contained 24,199 pages of emails Palin sent and received during her first two years as the state’s governor. Regardless of how you feel about the former VP candidate, it was a victory for those who believe in government transparency.

“I think it’s a perfect example of how far behind Rhode Island is compared to other states,” Brown said. Rhode Island was the 49th state in the country to enact a public-records law when it finally did so in 1979. “Rhode Island was very reluctant to pass it, and when they did they enacted a law that was among the weakest,” he said. “I think the fact that it took so long shows something.”

Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion said officials in Rhode Island have “an overblown fear” that a narrower exemption would allow people to read emails between them and their constituents about highly personal matters. “When you’re acting in your official capacity, you should always be cognizant that what you’re doing should be subject to public scrutiny,” he said.

“When you’re a public official dealing with public matters, that needs to be disclosed,” Marion added. “It’s the government’s business that you’re performing, and the people ultimately are the government.”


NEFAC hosting open government guru who met with Obama

May 13th, 2011 at 11:36 am by under Nesi's Notes

Want to know more about your right to know?

You’re in luck – next weekend the National Freedom of Information Coalition is hosting its annual summit right here at the Providence Biltmore in partnership with its regional affiliate, the New England First Amendment Coalition.

“It should be interesting for anybody that’s interested in how to enhance our democratic system in this country,” said Rose Cavanaugh, the New England group’s executive director. “Freedom of information is so essential to that.”

The summit’s keynote speaker will be Gary D. Bass, founder and executive director of OMB Watch, the 28-year-old advocacy group that’s forced more transparency from the powerful White House Office of Management and Budget. Bass was part of a group of open-government advocates that met with President Obama in the Oval Office earlier this year.

The coalition has put together a solid lineup of panels, including one on cutting-edge tools for digging into data and documents that will be moderated by Projo editor Tom Heslin and others on WikiLeaks, public records laws in various states, and how to build coalitions in support of transparency.

The New England First Amendment Coalition was founded in 2006 by a group of mostly journalists and lawyers who saw a need for the region’s six states to band together in support of open government and free speech. (Full disclosure: My colleague Tim White is on the coalition’s board.)

“We like to say that we educate, agitate and litigate,” said Cavanaugh, who became the coalition’s first executive director last October.

So how does Rhode Island’s record compare with those of the other five New England states? Cavanaugh wouldn’t come out and say it – but not so well. Rhode Island has a weak public records act, and – like Massachusetts – it exempts its legislature from open meetings law. It’s also a laggard when it comes to providing records promptly.

The New England First Amendment Coalition hopes to change that. In Vermont, for example, lawmakers recently passed a bill that calls for citizens to get reimbursed for their legal fees if it’s found their public records request was wrongly denied, Cavanaugh said.

You can register here for next week’s Freedom of Information Coalition summit. The $95 registration fee covers the summit plus receptions both days and breakfast and lunch on Saturday.


With no info-nudists, RI needs public records laws

March 21st, 2011 at 7:00 am by 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.”