Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Let Daylight Shine on Business of Governing

By: Ed Fitzpatrick

When Newport real estate agent Jack McVicker is trying to sell a house, he routinely asks for outstanding tax bills for that property, and Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth officials routinely provide that information, no questions asked.

But a couple of months ago, he was listing a property in West Warwick, and when he drove up to get the tax bill, a clerk asked: Who are you? He replied that it shouldn’t matter since he was requesting a public record. He said the clerk then told him he couldn’t have the information. So he explained what he was doing. But the clerk said the property owner, who’d hired him to sell the house, would have to contact her.

McVicker said he eventually received the information after filing a formal request under the state Access to Public Records Act. But the experience infuriated him and he suspects he only received the paperwork because he “raised a stink.” He said his experience highlights the need to ensure that records access doesn’t vary by town, and it highlights the need for better training.

In short, his experience highlights the need for a pending bill that would strengthen the open-records law. The Senate passed it last week, and the House is to vote on it Tuesday.

The bill would prohibit public officials from requiring, “as a condition of fulfilling a public records request, that a person or entity provide a reason for the request or provide personally identifiable information.” And it would require training for all state and municipal officials who have authority to grant or deny records requests.

Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich, sponsored the Senate bill and has been working on this section of law for a decade. He clearly understands the big picture, saying, “If the public doesn’t have access to public records, they don’t have access to a portion of their democracy.”

He notes the bill is the result of intensive negotiations by groups such as the Rhode Island Press Association, Common Cause Rhode Island, ACCESS/RI, the American Civil Liberties Union and Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch’s office.

Lynch spokesman Michael J. Healey said, “It’s a classic compromise bill. Nobody got everything they wanted but hopefully everyone got something in there they really needed.”

Lynch recognizes the need to update and upgrade the records law, and pushed for making municipal pension records public, Healey said. But Lynch had concerns about crime victims and witnesses and opposed releasing the location of arrests if doing so would identify a victim’s address.

This year’s legislation would not require the police to release the location of arrests. I think that’s a basic fact that should be public. But the bill would require the police to release, within 24 hours, the name, home address and date of birth of an arrested adult, the charge and the date and time of the arrest.

It also would make clear that the “initial narrative report” of an arrest is a public document. Rhode Island Press Association president Scott Pickering said the narrative report is crucial because “it helps you understand why the police used one of their highest powers — pulling someone off the street, putting them behind bars and charging them with a crime. It’s vital not just for the media but for the public to know what happened when the police pull up next door.”

Healey said Governor Carcieri was “on solid ground” in vetoing a records-access bill last year because it “didn’t protect witnesses and crime victims as well as it should.” But, he said, “The difference between last year’s bill and this year’s is night and day.”

At the end of the day, the governor and lawmakers need to let more daylight in to illuminate the workings of government.


No comments:

Post a Comment