PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An update to the state’s public records law has been filed at the State House, seeking to make government more transparent.
The changes proposed to the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) would make elected officials’ emails public — if they pertain to official business — and make other changes to reflect modern-day technology such as police body cameras.
The legislation, submitted by Sen. Lou DiPalma and Rep. Joe Solomon, was crafted with the help of several open government groups that make up Access Rhode Island, including the New England First Amendment Coalition, Common Cause Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association and the R.I. League of Women Voters.
The APRA law hasn’t had a significant update since 2012. “This attempts to shine more light as disinfectant,” DiPalma told 12 News.
With many of Rhode Island’s police departments starting to use body-worn cameras, the proposed bill makes clear that the video is subject to APRA, with some redactions allowed. In the case of a police use-of-force case, the video would be required to be released within 30 days, addressing recent controversies when such videos have been withheld while the incident is under investigation.
The bill would also make clear that internal affairs reports after investigations into police misconduct are public records.
“Particularly in light of the nationwide reckoning over police misconduct, this bill’s attempt to tackle the pervasive secrecy surrounding those records is a welcome and timely step,” said Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.
Brown said the legislation seeks to address “major loopholes and deficiencies” in the public records law.
The state’s ban on releasing 911 calls would be partially reversed under the legislation, allowing the recordings to be released “upon good cause shown,” a court order or a request from the caller or subjects of a call, including victims.
The bill would reverse the longstanding exception for elected officials, whose communications — like emails — have not been subject to public scrutiny, in contrast with other public officials.
The proposal would continue to exempt elected officials’ correspondence with their constituents, but would make public other communications related to their official capacities.
“We need to have insight into what’s happening when you’re conducting your business,” DiPalma said.
The bill would make subpoenas sent to government bodies or public officials public record, a provision DiPalma acknowledged was prompted in part by Gov. Dan McKee’s refusal to disclose whether his administration was subpoenaed in connection to a controversial education contract last year.
Public bodies would be required to post electronic copies of documents they’ll be discussing on their agendas, which would allow people to access the material without needing to attend the meeting in person.
The legislation would also reduce the costs associated with requesting a public record. The first two hours of search and retrieval would be free — up from the current standard of one hour — and any fees related to further time spent searching for the documents would be waived if the documents are in the public’s interest (rather than the requester’s commercial interest).
The bill would prohibit government agencies from charging for time spent redacting or denying a request.
Penalties for violating APRA would also increase from $2,000 to $10,000, and a $100 fine would be added for each day that records are improperly withheld, as determined by a court.
“It’s time to bring more transparency to Rhode Island,” said Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “This bill includes reasonable, common-sense changes to the Access to Public Records Act that will help keep us better informed about our government.”
John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, called the law a “key tool” of government accountability.
“These proposed changes will try to, among other things, cut down on governments using the APRA as a shield to withhold public documents by doing things like increasing the fines for non-compliance,” Marion said.
The bills were referred to the Senate Judiciary and House State Government & Elections committees, respectively, for consideration.
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.