Governor Chafee on Tuesday signed into law the open records changes pushed through the General Assembly by Rep. Michael Marcello and Sen. James Sheehan. Rhode Island was the second-to-last state to pass a public records law when it finally did so back in 1979, and this is the first significant improvement to the statute in 14 years. The changes take effect Sept. 1.
Common Cause Rhode Island has been a leading advocate for public records reform, so I asked its executive director John Marion to explain what the new law will do, and what remains to be done:
The newly amended Access to Public Records Act (APRA) makes several significant changes to what information will be made public and several significant changes to the processes for making information public.
The most significant change is the removal of the blanket exemption for personally identifiable records with the addition of a balancing test that would allow records to be kept private if it meets the standard of being an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” This is the federal standard that has been in place for decades. In addition to this new standard, the law classifies several specific types of records as public, including employment contracts and pensions being received by beneficiaries. Sharp Nesi’s Notes readers will note that the latter were declared public records last year in an advisory opinion by the attorney general’s office, but we wanted to make sure those remain public records even if the attorney general’s opinion changes.
The process-oriented changes include putting into statute that you do not have to disclose who you are when making a request. This protects the requester from harassment. Also, the new law requires public bodies to have a designated person trained to handle APRA requests; requires the public body to give the records in the preferred format of the requester; and increases the fines for violations of the law by public bodies. Our public records law, last amended in 1998, was showing its age, and making sure that you can get records scanned and emailed to you, if that’s not a burden to the public body, brings the law into the 21st century.
What we proposed, but did not make it into the final bill, included lowering the number of days for a response by the public bodies from 10 to seven days and a partial repeal of the exemption for correspondence of elected officials. I hope we will be able to revisit those questions in the future because there is a real value in knowing what public officials are doing on our behalf.