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NEW: ACLU Says AG’s Office Needs to Step Up Enforcement of Open Records Law

Thursday, February 21, 2013

 

The Rhode Island branch of the ACLU says the state's Attorney General's office has only pursued a handful of lawsuits despite numerous violations of the Access to Public Records Act by public bodies.

The Rhode Island branch of the ACLU is asking Attorney General Peter Kilmartin to increase enforcement of the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), saying that from 1999 to June of last year, the Attorney General’s office has only filed lawsuits against public bodies to violate the law six times, or less than four percent of the time violations of the law had been committed.

The ACLU says it was prompted to look into how the law had been enforced by the Attorney General’s office after the General Assembly made sweeping changes to the APRA last June.

The ACLU said its report found “discouraging patterns, which may partially explain why violations still seem so
widespread.”

“Violations of uncomplicated aspects of the law -- such as responding to an open records request within the required time period, notifying requesters of their appeal rights, and not charging unreasonable fees for the inspection and copying of records -- occurred repeatedly,” the organization said. “Even the most blatant violations of the statute rarely led to legal action by the Attorney General.”

Citing an instance where the town of North Providence allegedly violated the APRA six times within a two-year period, the ACLU said the Attorney General’s office “refused to find that the Town had engaged in a ‘knowing and willful’ violation that warranted seeking penalties under the law.”

The ACLU said that the previous APRA law had provided a difficult standard for the Attorney General to reach but, even so, argue that more should have been done to enforce the laws on the books.

“Since so many of the violations have been so clear, even this standard should have led to a much stronger track record in pursuing legal action and thereby helping to deter future violations by public bodies,” the report said.

With the changes made last year, public bodies can now be subject to penalties for “reckless” violations of the law and, as such, the ACLU says a “more vigorous response” is needed by the Attorney General’s office to reverse “a culture of secrecy that seems to pervade too many government agencies.”

“In light of the critical importance of the open records law in promoting government transparency, we are hopeful that the General Assembly’s amendments to this statute will lead to much stronger enforcement of the law and greater compliance by public agencies throughout the state,” RI ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown said.

The ACLU’s report can be viewed here.

 

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