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Proposed Legislation Hopes to Increase Government Transparency

Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Joseph J. Solomon, Jr., Chairman of the House Corporations Committee, have introduced legislation (2023-S 0420, 2023-H 5454) that would reform the Access to Public Records Act (APRA).

“Our state’s APRA laws are a meaningful and powerful tool for transparency and accountability, and in order to be most effective for the residents of Rhode Island, amendments to the law must be made. For instance, technology, such as body cameras on law enforcement, has changed a lot, and the law must change in order to preserve transparency for the public. In particular, police accountability for wrongdoing has really come to the forefront of our public debate and this legislation would further strengthen the APRA laws in favor of transparency and accountability when relating to unlawful acts and conduct. Further amendments were needed in order to address the continued evolution of government, ensuring that the public knows what is going on and that they are not unjustly burdened in order to understand how their government is operating. I was able to experience this upfront and personally during my role as chair of the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight,” said Chairman DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton).

“As our society and government continues to evolve and use newer technologies and systems, it is important that we also make sure that the public is not left in the dark as these new tools are utilized. This is an overdue amending of Rhode Island’s APRA laws that will guarantee transparency and accountability for the public,” said Chairman Solomon (D-Dist. 22, Warwick).

The legislation would amend the Access to Public Records Act in several areas, including:

  • Public meetings: Would require documents that will be discussed at an open meeting of a public body to be posted or linked with the electronic filing of the agenda.

  • Subpoenas: Generally makes public any subpoenas that are issued by a government entity to a public body or official regarding official business.

  • Costs: Reduces charges that can be imposed for the copying and retrieving of public records, and requires a reduction or waiver of fees for records requests that are in the public interest.

  • 911 calls: Allows for release of 911 calls under certain circumstances, including accounting for use of advanced technology.

  • Police records: Clarifies the public’s right to obtain arrest and incident reports, final investigations of police misconduct, and body camera footage of police “use of force” incidents.

  • Penalties for violations: Increases fines that can be imposed for violations of the law.

  • Elected official correspondence: Makes such records public to the extent they are connected to the official’s formal duties.

The legislation has support from several prominent organizations in Rhode Island.

“Over a decade has passed since APRA has been the subject of meaningful updating, and time has not been kind to it. Advances in technology and a recognition at both the national and local level of the need for greater governmental transparency and accountability serve as a clarion call for adoption of the modest but important amendments contained in this legislation,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

“Common Cause Rhode Island’s mantra is to hold power accountable, and there are few tools more important for doing that than our public records law. Without updates and improvements, the Access to Public Records Act becomes a less useful tool for the press and public to shine a light on what our government is doing,” said John Marion, Executive Director, Common Cause Rhode Island.

“It’s time to bring more transparency to Rhode Island. This bill includes reasonable, common-sense changes to the Access to Public Records Act that will help keep us better informed about our government,” said Justin Silverman, Executive Director, New England First Amendment Coalition.

“The Rhode Island Press Association believes that the proposed amendments to the Access to Public Records Act are needed because there have been major changes in technology since the last time the act was amended. To adapt to these significant changes, and because of nationwide publicity and concern about police misconduct, it is more important than ever that the public has access to all necessary information,” said Linda Lotridge Levin, Secretary, Rhode Island Press Association.

Chairman DiPalma’s bill is cosponsored by Sens. Frank A. Ciccone (D-Dist. 7, Providence, Johnston), Samuel D. Zurier (D-Dist. 3, Providence), Dawn Euer (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown), Mark P. McKenney (D-Dist. 30, Warwick), John P. Burke (D-Dist. 9, West Warwick), Frank S. Lombardi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston), Jonathon Acosta (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket), Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence) and Majority Leader Ryan W. Pearson (D-Dist. 19, Cumberland, Lincoln).

Chairman Solomon’s bill is cosponsored by Reps. Stephen M. Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence) and Rebecca Kislak (D-Dist. 4, Providence).

The bills have been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House State Government and Elections Committee.

From Rhode Island Legislature press releases here.

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