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ACLU: Public records laws need to be enforced

March 15, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The state’s attorney general has distinguished himself over the past four years by filing more public records lawsuits than any of his predecessors, but government transparency advocates argue that a tendency toward secrecy is so pervasive in the state that his office should enforce the law even more strongly.

Since 2011, Peter Kilmartin has pursued 11 lawsuits against public entities for failure to comply with open government laws, according to his office. Kilmartin, a Democrat, led the charge in 2012 to revise the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

He said he thinks creating a “culture of openness” is important.

The members of nonprofit group ACCESS/RI agree. Last year, the organization partnered with MuckRock, a public records request platform, to audit the state’s public entities, seeing how well they complied with public records laws.

The organization said the results of the audit, which are available online, were discouraging.

“A culture of secrecy remains embedded in Rhode Island, and the results from the ACCESS report demonstrate that quite starkly,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island and an ACCESS/RI board member.

The audit found 53 alleged violations of the state’s APRA. The group filed 14 complaints in December with the attorney general claiming departments had multiple violations, including not responding to requests within the statutory window and not having an employee certified in public records law.

Kilmartin’s office declined to comment on the complaints since they are still pending. But Kilmartin said his office has a “good, strong track record” of enforcing the law.

Nevertheless, Brown said the audit shows that despite Kilmartin’s record, his office should be more aggressive in enforcing APRA.

“The noncompliance was quite widespread,” Brown said.

According to the audit, dozens of agencies violated several aspects of APRA, in particular the law requiring public entities to respond to requests for public records within 10 business days. Twenty-six out of 39 police departments failed to respond within the statutory time, while 14 of 36 school districts were noncompliant.

Notably, the office of the auditor general took 49 business days to reply to requests for employee pension and payout data, according to the audit.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the auditor general’s noncompliance is particularly compelling.

“If they themselves aren’t performing up to standard, the public loses faith in whether they’re doing a sufficient job in holding the government accountable,” said Marion, a former board member of ACCESS/RI.

The office of the auditor general did not respond to a request seeking comment.

“I think it’s important we do these audits periodically because there’s really no other group in the state that does exactly this,” said Linda Lotridge Levin, president of ACCESS/RI and retired professor of journalism at the University of Rhode Island.

Kilmartin’s office said every complaint against an agency triggers an investigation by its open government unit.

But Lotridge Levin thinks these investigations might not be enough.

“I wouldn’t say that they’re never proactive, but they’re more reactive than proactive,” she said.

Kilmartin rejected the idea that the laws aren’t enforced strongly enough but acknowledged that getting agencies to comply requires education.

“It is an area of the law that needs to be kept up on,” Kilmartin said. “When someone is repeatedly egregious, they need to be held accountable.”

Brown agrees that there needs to be more education, but also more enforcement.

“Yes, he has filed more suits, and we commend him for that,” Brown said. “But there are still gaps.”

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