Rhode Island Gets New FOI Revamp!

Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Tuesday signed a reworked public records bill into law that unseals government employment contracts and creates a so-called “balancing test” for disclosures modeled after federal statute.

The new law is the first significant change to the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) in 14 years and Chafee said he hopes it will make government more transparent in Rhode Island.

“It’s a good bill, passed almost unanimously,” Chafee said moments after signing it. “We’re always criticized for being inaccessible and we struggle with some of our ethical issues in this state, so it’s always good to [let] sunshine in.”

The law – which goes into effect Sept. 1 – also requires certain details of an arrest to be released within 48 hours on weekdays or 72 hours on weekends. The information would be presented as an arrest “log” and include the name of the person charged, the alleged crime and where and when it took place. Massachusetts uses a similar process.

The most significant change is the addition of the balancing test, which is designed to counter a broad exemption in the old law that keeps sealed all records that are “personally identifiable” to an individual.

Thirteen people, 12 of them Lime Rock Fire District residents, have filed suit against the Lime Rock, Rhode Island, Fire District, Chief Frank Sylvester, and record keeper Lesley Heaton, alleging “hundreds” of knowing and willful violations of the Access to Public Records Act.

Among the documents requested were Sylvester’s employment contracts, his e-mails, proof that the chief had received permission to garage his personal vehicles on public property over 23 years as he has claimed, and proof that the chief accepted an appointment to become the state’s fire marshal on a ‘leave of absence’ temporary basis as he has claimed…

Monday’s lawsuit is the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy of Chief Sylvester and his years-long effort to skirt Pawtucket’s higher car tax rate by registering his personal vehicles at his place of work in Lincoln.

Last year the Rhode Island State Police determined that the chief was breaking the law by registering his cars at the Lime Rock Fire Department, but did not press charges in the matter. The state police left it up to Pawtucket officials to “determine if any further action to collect (those) taxes from Chief Sylvester is appropriate.”

Pawtucket city officials have said they want to pursue back taxes from Sylvester for the years he wrongfully paid them to Lincoln.

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Rhode Island’s FOI legislative package: so far, looking good….

Some Rhode Island public employees “try to shield their contracts” from the public by relying on language in the state Access to Public Records Act, the sponsor of a bill to require that such contracts be public told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Bill sponsor Rep. Roberto DaSilva, D-East Providence, testified Tuesday that the bill “makes the open-records law a little bit better, cleans it up.”

Committee members appeared supportive, but indicated the legislation would need added language to redact or remove things that would help prevent crimes such as identity theft.

The state Department of Administration supports the bill but echoed concerns of the attorney general’s office that the legislation should include language that removes Social Security numbers, personal addresses and cell-phone numbers from the documents.

The League of Women Voters in Rhode Island indicated support for the legislation, as did the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We think it’s excellent,” said Hillary Davis, a policy associate with the ACLU.

Aside from the bills heard Tuesday, committee members said that a package of public-records legislation, described as comprehensive, is expected to come out within the next two weeks.


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