The Most Secretive Government Agencies in RI
Monday, July 09, 2012
Of 27 repeat offenders since 2010, six were fire districts, four were towns, and four were town councils, according to data from the state Attorney General’s Open Government Unit, which enforces state laws on transparency. (See below chart for list.)
Just two cities made the list: Central Falls and Pawtucket.
Some of the better known quasi-public agencies also earned the unhappy distinction, including the nonprofit Providence Economic Development Partnership and the state Economic Development Corporation. Several state departments had at least one violation, but only one was a repeat offender—the Department of Corrections.
Violations spanned a wide range from the seemingly trivial—such as the Albion Fire District failing to cite the proper section of the law before going into closed-door session—to the more egregious, such as the Nasonville Fire District canceling an August 2009 meeting when two citizens showed up and then holding the meeting after they had left.
The Pawtucket School Committee found an easier solution to that problem—it locked the door to one of its meetings. Another fire district held meeting in an area that was not handicapped accessible.
‘Secretive government drives off the cliff’
But such seemingly minor infractions are nonetheless serious matters, according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
“The Access to Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act are the twin pillars of open government in Rhode Island and violations are serious matters,” Marion said. “While it can be difficult at times to follow the letter of the law, it’s important that public bodies strive to do so. If government isn’t transparent citizens cannot trust the decisions government makes on their behalf.”
One Providence citizen who waged a number of high-profile battles over open meetings and public records with the David Cicilline administration in Providence put it another way: “I guess it boils down to this: I believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people. And that government needs to be open, honest, and accountable, or it always becomes abusive,” said Judith Reilly. “Government sometimes gets a flat tire; secretive government drives right off the cliff.”
One government agency that, according to Reilly, ‘went over the cliff’ was the Providence Economic Development Partnership during the Cicilline administration.
She said the PEDP first was brought to her attention by late Councilman Miguel Luna.
Reilly said it also became “apparent” that “many loans were in default.” When she filed an initial public records request asking who had gotten the loans, she said she was told “that was none of my business.” The PEDP claimed it was a private entity not public and therefore not subject to state laws on public records. The Attorney General’s office disagreed and found the organization in violation of state law. (A call to the PEDP office seeking comment was not returned.)
Smallest the most secretive…?
The top violators, on the other hand, were all fire districts—something that came as a surprise to Marion.
“The trend I see are the less professionalized bodies having the hardest time complying,” Marion said. “Several fire districts, whose primary tasks are to provide emergency services and levy taxes to pay for those services, seem to have a difficult time. Considering the simplicity of the tasks involved, as compared to a big city government for instance, that’s a surprising result.”
But some may be less surprising than others. The Town of North Providence, which had six violations over the two and a half year period, also has been the subject of a number of well-known public corruption cases.
The largest public body in Rhode Island, the General Assembly, is noticeably absent from the Attorney General log of complaints it has investigated. That’s because former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse issued an opinion that his office could not enforce the Open Meetings Act against the General Assembly and the current Secretary of State has stated that the General Assembly is not subject to the law.
But Secretary of State Ralph Mollis nonetheless issues an annual report of the General Assembly’s voluntary compliance with the law. Between 2010 and 2011, there were 48 violations of the Open Meetings Act. Including those figures in the rankings would make the General Assembly the most ‘secretive’ government agency in Rhode Island.
However, the Secretary of State’s report does not rely upon the same investigative methods of the Attorney General’s office and, overall, Mollis’ office has also recognized state lawmakers for complying with law at rates of 90 percent or more, despite the numerous violations his office found.
Controversy in Lincoln
So how exactly did a tiny fire district in northern Rhode Island end up at the top spot?
Since 2010, the Albion Fire District has accumulated at least 28 violations. All of those stemmed from complaints filed by one person, Ronald Beagan, whose rental condo in the fire district was sold at a tax auction in 2006 for failure to pay taxes. Beagan, who eventually bought the condo back for about $4,000, blames the fire district for its failure to send tax notices to the proper mailing address. He eventually settled with the district for some of the cost of buying it back.
One Albion fire commissioner denied the district had purposefully broken the law. “There’s nothing nefarious going on here,” said Mike Napolitano. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”
He accused Beagan on going on a “personal vendetta mission” in retaliation for the condo sale.
He said Beagan initially requested and received records related to his condo issue. But the requests kept coming, according to Napolitano. “He would ask for our any votes taken the day after each monthly meeting, he would ask for minutes the next day, he asked for every single month, month after month when the minutes had nothing to do with him,” said Napolitano, who has served as spokesman for several top GOP candidates. “At one point he made an appointment to come into the fire station to look through document after document and that wasn’t enough for him.”
The district found itself inundated with an unrelenting barrage of requests and it was all the small part-time staff could do to keep up, according to Napolitano. After about 50 requests, Napolitano said he personally lost count. “The whole situation here is that he didn’t pay his taxes and he placed the blame on everyone but himself,” he said.
‘Shooting the messenger’
Beagan flatly denies asking for records that weren’t related to his case. “The reason I filed the requests was to find information on the sale of my property,” he said. “I was looking for the public records because I wanted to get to the bottom of what happened with the state of my property.”
In all, he says he filed 55 requests—all for public records related to his case, he noted. He also points out that Albion has a longstanding pattern of repeated failure to follow the law, dating back to complaints that were filed by Napolitano himself in 2008 before being elected commissioner. (Napolitano’s complaints were filed through the Albion Fire District Taxpayers Association.)
Unfair hounding or citizen watchdog?
So do citizens sometimes abuse public records laws to serve personal agendas?
“Yes, people can use the APRA and the OMA aggressively like many laws that allow citizens to make complaints,” Marion said. “That said there are people who use these accountability tools effectively as a check on power.”
And, in fact, in some cases, accusations of personal vendetta become a way for public officials to brush away legitimate inquiries, according to Reilly.
Asked to comment, Assistant Attorney General Michael Field, the Chief of the Attorney General’s Open Government Unit, responded: “All of our findings are issued only after reviewing the complaint that has been filed, the public body’s response, the law, and any other information that either party wishes the Department to review. All of our findings are public records and posted on our website so anyone can review our findings and draw their own conclusions.”
He noted that pending litigation in the Albion case barred him from discussing it further.
Is the law working?
Are state laws on open meetings and public records working? Reilly suggests they need greater enforcement. She said she has found working with the Attorney General’s office “somewhat frustrating”: complaints tend to take six months or longer to be resolved and part of her second complaint against the PEDP is still pending.
But things have come a long way since 1999, Field said, when he became involved in the Open Government Unit. “A decade ago, it was not uncommon to have a public body respond that they did not know what the OMA or APRA was, or whether or not the law even applied to them,” Field said. “Today, there is much more awareness of the OMA and APRA requirements and this results in greater access to governmental records and meetings.”
And improvements to the law have been made over the years. Changes that have recently been enacting include a narrowing of the once broad exception on public records identifiable to individuals, an opening up more pension records, and new provisions that create “additional enforcement and training of public officials,” according to Field.
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