Lincoln Chafee’s first act as governor Tuesday was to issue an executive order [pdf] requiring his employees to follow the Rhode Island Code of Ethics and judgments from the Rhode Island Ethics Commission as they carry out their duties.
One of the passages in the four-page document reads as follows (emphasis mine):
10. In addition to the foregoing, all officers and employees under my jurisdiction shall be mindful of their responsibilities under law under the Access to the Public Records Act, as stated in Title 38, Chapter 2 of the Rhode Island General Laws, the Open Meetings Act, as stated in Title 42, Chapter 46 of the Rhode Island General Laws, and other similar laws dealing with government transparency.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but it misses the much bigger problem: Rhode Island’s public records act is pitifully weak – almost insultingly so.
You don’t have to take my word for it, either. Ask Tim White, who’s a newly elected board member on the New England First Amendment Coalition and has schooled me on all things APRA, which was first enacted in 1979.
“In essence, it was written to essentially say to the public: ‘No, you can’t have this,’ ” he says. “There are loopholes throughout the legislation that make it very easy for government bodies to say no. And open-government organizations as well as journalism organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists have repeatedly said that Rhode Island has one of the worst laws in the country.”
How do I loathe thee, APRA? Let me count the ways.
Inconsistent. It often seems as if no two government offices, from the Department of Transportation to a town hall, interpret the public records act in the same way. Decisions about what information gets handed over routinely come down to the whims of the individual who receives the request.
Misunderstood. Part of the reason APRA is interpreted so inconsistently is that the officials who receive our requests often just don’t know much about it. There’s a nearly across-the-board lack of understanding about what government agencies must do to comply with the law. DOT, for example, makes you fill out a form that asks why you want the information – which is technically illegal.
Unbalanced. In other states, the public records law contains what’s known as a “balancing act,” which requires officials to weigh the potential negative consequences of divulging information against the public’s right to know how their government operates. Not here.
Pro-leak. APRA’s weaknesses encourage individuals to take it upon themselves to make information available to the public – by leaking it to reporters like Tim and me, which puts the employee and the journalist at risk professionally and legally. But if there’s no other way to get information out there, it’s going to happen.
Toothless. If you file a complaint about an APRA request that gets fully or partly denied, who decides on the complaint? A lawyer in the attorney general’s office – an employee of the same government that is fighting the records request in the first place. Michael Field, who holds that thankless job here in Rhode Island, is widely respected, but the law puts him in a very difficult position. And if Field decides against the complaint, the next step is to appeal to the judiciary – a costly and difficult process that may not be feasible.
Let me give you a real-world example of how APRA interferes with obtaining information that the public should be allowed to know.
APRA requires agencies to disclose “remuneration.” You may remember that last year Tim and I did an investigation into executive pay at the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, the quasi-public agency that runs T.F. Green. We wanted to know something specific: how much were top managers there being paid in annual bonuses, which are given at the discretion of RIAC chief Kevin Dillon (or, in the case of Dillon’s own bonus, the board)?
RIAC replied by sending us a spreadsheet with the “gross salaries” – i.e., total cash paid over the course of the year in wages and bonuses – for every employee at RIAC. It showed Dillon made $296,010 in 2009. We asked them to break that figure down so we could see how much of it represented his annual performance bonus.
RIAC refused because the bonus is decided by provisions of Dillon’s contract, which the agency claimed is a confidential document the public cannot inspect since it reflects personal information about him as an employee.
“The way our law is written, anytime the governor signs a bill into law it’s essentially closed to inspection – because his name is on it,” Tim says. “That’s how bad our law is.”
I asked Mike Trainor, Chafee’s spokesman, whether the governor would support strengthening APRA – something promoted by Common Cause Rhode Island and state Rep. Edith Ajello, among others – and he said the administration hasn’t considered that yet. Fair enough – Chafee only took the oath of office two days ago.
In the meantime, I asked Trainor what steps Chafee’s administration would take to comply with his executive order by making sure employees understand APRA and then follow it. (To his credit, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is holding a seminar about just that next week.)
“Implicit in this order – and maybe not explicit – is the notion of training at all levels on ethics and issues like the information act,” Trainor replied. “Each agency, as the executive order says, is required to assign an ethics officer at every department of state government, and I believe what you’ll see following those designations – at least, it’s the expectation – that there will be significant additional training, leveraging the resources of the Ethics Commission.”
With a new governor in office, this would be a great opportunity for employees at all levels of government in Rhode Island to learn about APRA – and for lawmakers to bring our law into line with those of other states. Let’s watch and see what happens.
Update: Common Cause’s John Marion writes in to say while his group supports APRA reform, three other organizations deserve the lion’s share of credit for pushing it: the state’s ACLU chapter, the Rhode Island Press Association and ACCESS/RI. Marion also notes state Sen. Michael Lenihan was the leading voice on the issue prior to his retirement.