Rob Horowitz: New Public Records Law a Step in the Right Direction
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Hailed by open government advocates, the retooled and much-improved Access to Public Records Act becomes official state law on September 1. Much attention has already been focused on how this law will better enable reporters to pursue important stories by granting them easier access to government records. Just as important, citizens will be granted that same access and can use the information to put forward their own constructive proposals to local and state governments and to hold elected and appointed officials accountable.
Sponsored by State Rep. Michael Marcello (D-Dist 41), the revamped law strictly limits the conditions upon which government agencies can exceed the law's 10-day time limit or refuse to provide the requested information; expands the government employment and consulting contracts available for public scrutiny; and provides a new balancing test that weighs the privacy rights of individuals named in government records against the public interest. This balancing test, used in some other states and similar to one employed in the Federal Information Act, is a big improvement over the broad use of ‘privacy concerns” as a reason to keep documents from the public.
Now it will be up to citizens to use this improved law to request information essential to understanding how state and municipal governments are spending their tax dollars and what actions have been taken on issues of importance to them As these governments continue to make tough budget decisions in this new age of austerity, it is all the more important that citizens come forward and constructively weigh in on what are the most critical priorities and how government can work more efficiently
In New Jersey, citizens have used an expansive open records law to determine how much money cities, towns and school boards are spending on insurance costs and are advancing a “best practice local insurance model law” that mandates open competition and transparency for the selection of brokers and insurance companies. This effort has already saved tens of millions of dollars across the state. Similar kinds of initiatives are possible in Rhode Island (full disclosure: I serve as a consultant to The New Jersey-based Citizens Campaign, which trains citizens to advance their own proposals, and have served as a consultant to National Common Cause, which advocates for open records).
While we spend a lot of time in Rhode Island complaining about the quality of our elected officials, it is important to remember that in a democracy we get the government we deserve. Responsible citizenship means more than voting and paying taxes. The new open records law gives Rhode Island citizens the opportunity to arm themselves with the same information available to government officials. Here is hoping that more citizens will seize this opportunity and use this new tool to help build a better Rhode Island.
Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.