Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Open-Records Bill, with Major Change, Approved by House

By Karen Lee Ziner

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — The House on Tuesday passed open-records legislation with a last-minute amendment that eliminated what supporters had called “a huge advance” — a requirement that initial police narrative reports on arrests be made public.

Jarred by that and two other unexpected amendments, some of those supporters said they will meet Wednesday to discuss their options.

“The changes that were made are very troubling and all the groups that have been working on this bill are going to sit down and discuss the ramifications of those amendments,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of several advocacy groups that supported the legislation.

“But I’d emphasize that the attorney general has held for some time that the initial narrative reports are in fact a public record,” said Brown. “The House vote to the contrary today is a major step backward in the scope of the statute.”

Barbara Meagher, president of ACCESS/RI, said the language stipulating that initial police narratives are public record “is a key part of our bill. The public needs that information. It makes it tough when people who are making decisions about this are part of the government that the public needs information about. And they, in effect, make it look like they’re blocking some information about themselves. They need to be braver and let the public know more about what the government is doing.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Edith H. Ajello, D-Providence, prime sponsor of the bill (H 51360), asked that it not be sent immediately to the Senate for a vote. Ajello said the bill can still be amended as long as it remains on the House side. She said, “I’d love to bring it up again to make it whole.”

The 46-22 vote followed nearly two hours of steamy debate on a bill supporters had said would significantly widen access to public records. Until Tuesday, the House bill mirrored legislation the Senate passed unanimously last week that was sponsored by Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, D-East Greenwich.

The twin bills had taken two years for disparate parties — including advocacy groups and law enforcement — to hammer out and had the support of the Rhode Island Press Association, the RI ACLU, ACCESS/RI, Common Cause, and the state attorney general’s office. Rhode Island State Police legal counsel Lisa Holley said Tuesday that the department still has reservations, including the seven-day window for responding to records requests. “Seven days is huge for us,” Holley said. “It makes it over-burdensome for us.”

The House and Senate bills require that police release basic arrest information within 24 hours, including 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 the name of the arresting officer. They shorten to 7 days from 10 days the time during which a public body must respond to a records request, and boost fines for public agencies that ignore the deadlines.

The legislation also makes it easier for the average person to obtain records by forbidding public employees to inquire who they are or why they want them. And, it 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

“For all of us in this chamber who say we’re for open government, this bill is it,” said Rep. Michael J. Marcello, D-Scituate. “Though government works for people in Rhode Island, the reality is, some cities and towns — it’s very difficult to get information from them. They use every trick in the book — [including] intimidation,” he said. “In this, they cannot ask you why you are requesting it. This is really about transparency.”

Responding to Marcello, Rep. Arthur J. Corvese, D-North Providence, said, “I am for open government, just not for stupid government.”

Ajello took exception. “… I really resent my legislation being called stupid,” she said.

Corvese said, “If you took offense, I apologize. But I feel this strikes at the heart and purpose of government … to protect its people.” Corvese also said he has “a real problem with someone asking for information and not identifying who they are.”

House Minority Leader Robert A. Watson demanded, “Why didn’t we deal with this bill in March, rather than the day before” a scheduled vote on the state budget?

Before Tuesday’s vote, Scott Pickering, executive director of the Rhode Island Press Association, said the requirement that the police narrative report must be released as part of the initial arrest report would reflect a “huge advance,” and brings statewide consistency.

“The officer’s narrative is critical in understanding why police take people off the streets put them behind bars and charge them. Lacking that report — whether it’s the media or an average citizen or anyone from public — all you can get is the name, address and age” of an adult who has been arrested. “That gives you almost no understanding why and how police exercise one of government’s highest powers.”

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