Friday, June 19, 2009

House Delays Action On New Public-Records Access Bill

By Karen Lee Ziner

Journal Staff Writer

Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, has sponsored legislation that would strengthen access to public records.

The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch

PROVIDENCE –– The House has postponed to Tuesday a vote on legislation that supporters say would strengthen the state Access to Public Records Act. Sponsor Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, agreed to give legislators more time to read a redrawn, substitute bill introduced prior to Thursday’s scheduled vote.

Ajello’s bill now mirrors legislation the Senate passed unanimously on Wednesday. It stiffens fines for police departments and other public agencies that fail to meet deadlines, and eases the process for the “average Joe” unfamiliar with records requests.

Both Ajello’s bill and the one sponsored by Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, are supported by the Rhode Island Press Association, the nonprofit freedom-of-information coalition ACCESS/RI, Common Cause Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and the state attorney general’s office .

Before the postponement, Ajello said she believed that Governor Carcieri will support the legislation rather than veto it as he did last year.

But Carcieri’s spokeswoman, Amy Kempe, said Thursday, “I know law enforcement still has serious issues with the legislation, and we will take that under consideration when the governor reviews the bill. But I know it’s different legislation than last year, so I can’t go solely on what he did last year.”

The legislation, in part:

•Shortens the time in which a public body must respond to a records request from 10 business days to 7.

•Increases the fine from $1,000 to $5,000 for “a knowing and willful violation” of the open-records law.

•Makes public certain records that had not previously been considered public, including municipal pension records and records of payments received by employees as a result of termination or otherwise leaving public employment

•Specifies that certain portions of police reports are deemed public and must be released within 24 hours — including the initial narrative about an arrested adult; the name, home address (provided it does not reveal the identity of a crime victim who is a minor), date of birth, gender and race; the charge or charges; the date, time and location of the arrest; and the name of the arresting officer.

It formalizes training and certification requirements for all state and municipal officers and employees of public bodies who handle records requests, and requires every public body to designate a public-records officer; and explain how and where to make public records requests.

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s local affiliate, said passage of the legislation “will put Rhode Island more in line with the open record laws of other New England states,” particularly in terms of response times for releasing records.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause, said that while police records have been a major focus, “there are a lot of things in this bill that don’t apply to police records that are huge steps forward for public-records law.”

He said, “In particular, it prohibits any public body from demanding information about the person requesting the public record. Historically that has been a real problem [when officials ask] ‘Why do you want the record?’ ‘Who are you?’ — which is a way of intimidating the person trying to request the record.

“It’s also about the average Joe who wants to get something from his town clerk and is scared because they’re walking into the town clerk’s office — they’re not a lawyer, not a reporter, they’re just a citizen and want a public record. But they might not know it’s a public record and might not know how to request one.”

kziner@projo.com

1 comment:

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