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Historic Overhaul of Public Records Act

As of Sept. 1, the scope of government documents you can request is expanded, according to James Sheehan and Michael Marcello.

Op-ed submitted by State Sen. James C. Sheehan and Rep. Michael J. Marcello.

Have you ever had trouble getting public information from your government?  You shouldn't, but it has at times been a problem here in Rhode Island.

Legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor took effect on Sept. 1, making significant improvements to the Access to Public Records Act (more commonly known as the open records law), will fix that.

Based on legislation we sponsored in the State Senate and House of Representatives, the APRA changes that are now in effect are expected to make public records easier to obtain.  This will make more transparent the actions of all public bodies in the state, from the local level to the state. The executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition has said the changes to the law could make Rhode Island one of the most open governments in New England.

We fought for these improvements to the law because we believe that government does not and should not exist to keep secrets from the public.  Instead it should facilitate the public’s knowledge and understanding about the functions of government. Good governments provide their citizens with as much accurate and easily obtainable information as possible. We believe our changes will make it easier for the public to seek and receive information and make more information that is pertinent to the public readily available.

Among the provisions of the new and improved APRA:

Prior to Sept. 1, all documents identifiable to an individual were not public.  The new law will apply a balancing test by providing that all records of this nature would be public unless disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.  This is identical to the balancing test in the Federal Freedom of Information Act.

An arrest record must now be provided within 48 hours of a request (72 hours on weekends and holidays), together with basic information pertaining to the arrest of an adult. This provision applies to arrests made five days before a request for records. The basic information to be provided includes such items as the name, date of birth, gender and race of the arrested adult; the charge or charges and the date and time of the arrest.

Various records that were not previously public now will be, including municipal pension records that are not part of the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS), records of payments received by an employee as a result of termination or otherwise leaving employment and employment contracts of public employees.

Public bodies will be required to designate a public records officer. Those who will handle public records requests must receive training and orientation concerning the act and certify compliance to this requirement to the Attorney General.

A public body cannot, as a condition of fulfilling a public records request, require a person seeking public records to give a reason for the request or to provide personally identifiable information about him or herself.

All copying and search and retrieval fees will be waived if a public body fails to comply with a request in a timely manner.

The civil fine for a knowing or willful violation of these provisions will be increased from $1,000 to $2,000.

A $1,000 fine will be imposed against a public body or official found to have recklessly violated the provisions.  Until now, there has been no fine for a reckless violation.

When a public body seeks an additional 20 business days to respond to a record request (beyond the initial 10 business days), it must set forth a specific reason why additional time is necessary. Until now, a public body could extend the time to respond up to an additional 20 business days “for good cause” without clearly elaborating the cause.

A court may now award reasonable attorney fees and costs to a plaintiff if the court determines that the public body acted in bad faith. (A judgment in the plaintiff’s favor is not needed.)

The executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, in a recent news story, said the amendments now incorporated in the law will leave Rhode Island “better off and there will be more transparency in Rhode Island government.” Assistant RI Attorney General Michael W. Field, head of the Open Government Unit in the AG’s office, said that, under the new law, “there’s going to be greater accountability from start to finish.”

We are proud to have been involved in enacting these important changes to the law.  We have written this article because it is vital that citizens know their rights and exercise those rights to hold public officials accountable. More transparency can only yield greater efficiency and accountability to the citizens of our state.

James C. Sheehan is the Democratic State Senator in District 36, Narragansett and North Kingstown. Michael J. Marcello is the Democratic State Representative in District 41, Scituate and Cranston.

Govstench September 08, 2012 at 11:45 AM
This guy is highlighting may a skant few good government bills. Ask him about his vote on Binding Arbitration for Teachers, which he voted on as a teacher. Watching his voting record, he has been a tax and spend liberal who is hooked in with the Democrat machine. His slogan of "Charting the Course" is heading right for the rocks. He needs to go - been there too long.
Jason Demers September 09, 2012 at 01:17 AM
Hey Govstench, Just visited Sheehan's web page (senatorsheehan.com). Here's what I saw under good government below. Guess he has a few more than "scant" good government accomplishments (see next post). I do not know about the arbitration bill. But, seems to me after reading a number of your posts that you nothing more than a Tea Party hatchet man! I guess that's why you call yourself Govstench, because your comments stink! Suggestion: why don't you man-up and actually argue from a basis in facts before you ink your stinky comments. Thanks, Jay Good Government Won passage of landmark reform of Open Records laws Successfully advocated performance metrics for state government. Advocated and supported fairer regulations for business (Regulatory Fairness Act) Co-sponsored a new law to allow for Shared Municipal Services (OPEB) Voted for Pension Reform Strongly advocated the restoration of the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly. See next post.
Jason Demers September 09, 2012 at 01:17 AM
During the 2007-2008 session, Common Cause rated Senator Sheehan as the #1 good government legislator in the entire General Assembly Sponsored a new law that provides greater oversight and due diligence for state contracts involving building and construction projects. Sponsored: A law to reform Eminent Domain to protect private property in response to the Kelo v. City of New London US Supreme Court decision. Sponsored: A law to clarify Term Limits on membership to the powerful Judicial Nominating Commission [which nominates all new judges in the state] Successfully co-sponsored Separation of Powers constitutional amendment to RI Constitution to better balance the powers of government Co-sponsored: Ethics Disclosure Laws Sponsored: Lobbyist Reform Law Co-sponsored: Campaign Finance Reform Law
Polly Ticks September 09, 2012 at 02:53 AM
Why not pick on Rep Trillo who owns an alarm company and votes on fire code bills? Or why not pick on Majority Leader Mattiello who voted for civil unions when he's a devout Catholic doing Catholic church readings? How about picking on Jon Brien whose decision will now bring his community of Woonsocket to the brink of bankruptcy? But you pick on him because he is a teacher. You're fixated on that fact. You must be bitter & jealous to keep repeating it. Why didn't you add that he voted yes to the pension changes as a teacher? You ignored that fact didn't you? He did a good thing getting this bill passed. He made improvements to the access to public records law. Sheehan believed that government does not & should not exist to keep secrets from the public. And so you should be happy that you can now access records and have more transparency.Instead you vilify him because of his profession.I don't see you vilifying the profession of other politicians's who you call a tax and spend liberal.Why not go after the lawyers in the General Assembly who make 6 figure salaries, more than most RI people like Fox, Mattiello, Paiva Weed, Brian Newberry who did not give up their 3.2 % raises.Senator Sheehan did. He doesn't make a 6 figure lawyer salary but he did the right thing giving up the raise.You also ignored the fact he gave up the health insurance-no waiver buyout either. It is not he who needs to go but vindictive discriminatory personalities like yours that need to go.
Debra Puleo September 09, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Time for Jimbo Sheehan to hit the road... all of these hacks have to go... the state is decaying... there are no jobs... nothing else matters... they have DONE NOTHING to improve the job climate in this State
Govstench September 09, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Thanks for your wonderful complement. I stand on the record - he votes for every teacher bill - especially binding arbitration for teacher wages!! If you think that is great, then I've made my point. Not a tea party person, just an independent taxpayer who is fed up with these tax and spend liberals. This guy has been pounding legislation for teachers for years. There is not one tax bill that this guy doesn't approve. He's been there too long and is time to go.
Govstench September 09, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Thes guys always come around and tout how great they are. Check their voting records and bills they submitt and then goes to the Board of Elections website and check their campaign finance reports. You will see who "owns" them. The insurance industry is a classic example. These clowns talk about special interests but then the majority of them take campaign donations from Amica Insurance. How's that? Sheehan is a big supporter of the NEA.....look up to see how many bucks he has taken from them over the years. Open your eyes people - your being fleeced!
CompassCarrier September 09, 2012 at 09:28 PM
Gov: funny that you are suggesting people check out who is donating to candidates...who "owns" them. You and your fellow GOP'ers are behind Sharon Gambo and one look at her campaign contributions is like looking in the yellow pages under "Auto/Collision"!
George September 10, 2012 at 07:27 PM
ugh!
George September 10, 2012 at 07:35 PM
Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. All these "reformers" are clamoring for reform. That's a good thing. So, Senator Sheehan sponsors and helps to pass a bill in the state senate which fights corruption by making public records REALLY public, finally. That's fighting corruption. Then the reformers castigate him for doing the right thing and telling the electorate about his effort to fight corruption. These pseudo-reformers should have applauded this accomplishment since it supposedly agrees with their aims. Instead they spew generalized vitriol at the author and sponsor of this anti-corruption bill. It doesn't sound like they are interested in reform; it sounds like they are only interested in power. And that sounds pretty corrupt to me.
Jack Brophy September 10, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Senator Sheehan has proudly served his fellow Rhode Islanders and particularly, his constituents of NK/Narragansett. He has sponsored MANY pieces of legislation (as described above by Mr. Demers). He clearly is not a Senator for the money; he is also not at the State house to reap side benefits from being a Senator. He is a school teacher, which is a noble vocation – one that is underappreciated in today’s society. He is from Rhode Island; has lived here nearly his entire life; most of his family is still in RI; and, many have served the State in various capacities. He cares about this State. I bet if you spoke with Mr. Sheehan’s students, they would tell you he is tough in class, but fair. He maintains a high level of integrity and is not beholden to any entity seeking to “buy” candidates. Sheehan is a teacher and therefore supports his fellow educators – but, he voted for pension reform, which he recognized was the RIGHT thing for Rhode Islanders, yet also knew it hurt his own financial future. I don’t think government is doing many of the right things, either. However, Sheehan is one of the few who get it. He shouldn’t be tainted by the Obama administration’s missteps or our own local politicians’ shenanigans. He is one of the few good ones we have! Oh, and as an aside, Govstench might have benefitted from being a student of Mr. Sheehan’s, as he would surely have taught you to spell “you’re (being fleeced)” versus “your.”
CompassCarrier September 10, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Gov: funny that you are suggesting people check out who is donating to candidates...who "owns" them. You and your fellow GOP'ers are behind Sharon Gambo and one look at her campaign contributions is like looking in the yellow pages under "Auto/Collision"! ...
Govstench September 16, 2012 at 06:46 PM
@jason: If you think this guy is so great on Ethics Disclosure Laws, why does he continue to vote for teacher related legislation where he benefits? That run contrary to what he advocates! Sorry, but he can't stand on both sides of the issue.
Govstench September 16, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Yeah and why not pick on Rep. Lally who is constantly flooding bills in for the courts to benefit his own practice? THEY ALL GUILTY OF IT. But if you don't single them out, then they will continue to be re-elected and the hayride continues. Term limits would stop all of this but these people don't want that. That would inconvience them too much.
Govstench September 16, 2012 at 06:51 PM
@CCarrier: Turn it around on Rep. Ehrhardt - he took a campaign donation from Amica Insurance. He was on the side of the insurance companies. Now what does that make him? Yep, just as guilty as the rest of them - working for the special interests! Ask them why they don't return it? I mean ALL OF THEM!! You won't because you know what the answer will be.
Govstench September 16, 2012 at 07:10 PM
@Jack: The problem with Mr. Sheehan is his voting record does him in. He has filed some good legislation which has become law. He has filed some really lousy legislation as the rest of them have as well. However, his voting record is what does him in. He votes along with the tax and spend majority. He voted for the Supplemental Tax Increase for the taxpayers of Woonsocket. He also voted for the tolls on the new Sakonnet River Bridge. Do you think that is fair to those people and businesses in this lousy economic climate? He has voted in favor of every single state budget since being in office. Every budget has either been level or had increases approaching 6%. If you can justify that record, then you have no problem with your property taxes going through the roof. The little critique over your and you’re is splitting hairs. If you are saying that I would have benefited from Mr. Sheehan's class over one word, give me a break. I don't know what he teaches but perhaps he could benefit from a course in municipal finance and tax obligations. He is also a big fan of municipal bond obligations. Perhaps you are unaware that every time a bond referendum is approved, it automatically includes YOUR PROPERTY as collateral on the repayment of that bond. It is also an open ended credit card on all the taxpayers who approve that bond instrument. That's why the really well managed municipalities have no bonds - they have cash reserves!
Jason Demers September 19, 2012 at 02:55 AM
Govstench, You speak in such generalities like a good Tea Party supporter of Tina McKendell. What lousy legislation? Sheehan voted for every budget! How do you know this? Crystal ball? You claim to know Sheehan that well, but you say you don't even know what subject he teaches?! His Webpage says "history"' If you have NOT even read his bio page, how can you be this big Sheehan expert??? Don't bonds generally only get passed after the local town or city councils ask for them by a majority vote? I did a little research on Senator Sheehan, some simply looking at the NK Patch. So if you could actually find this information if you truly wanted to be objective (which you are clearly not or you are willfully ignorant). Senator Sheehan opposed Chafee's sales tax expansion of last year. He opposed the meals and hotel taxes. He voted against his own pension, guess that's not a conflict huh? According to a friend of mine at RISC, he even supported Tax and Expenditure Limts which led to Senate 3050 -- the property tax cap! Go figure! The unions must have loved that!! Senator Sheehan according to the NK Patch opposed instate tuition rates for illegals and his Webpage (you should read it some time) said he supports everify! Hmmm BIG TIME progressive! So, Govstench, your opinions will stink until you can stop spewing unfounded garbage and get the facts. Yours, Jay
Jason Demers September 19, 2012 at 02:57 AM
PS: just found this, Senator Sheehan voted to lower the personal income tax that has upset liberals so much! What a progressive!
Jason Demers September 19, 2012 at 03:01 AM
PPS: Hey just found this on the NK Patch: Sen. James C. Sheehan (D-Dist. 36, North Kingstown and Narragansett) announced yesterday that he will decline the 3.2 percent salary increase that took effect on July 1. The constitutional change that established legislative salaries also allows them to receive health insurance benefits comparable to other state employees. Sheehan does not accept the health insurance coverage and has, in the past, declined the more than $2,002 payment for legislators...." This is one Badddd Actor!!!
George September 19, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Governmental Stench begins with stupidity and stupidity begins with bad vocabulary and bad vocabulary begins bad spelling--it's compliment, not complement. If you really want to reform things, begun with yourself. Where is Dwight Eisenhower when we really need him?
George September 19, 2012 at 10:31 PM
Get it--"begun"? Take pride in the precision of your criticism. It shows you really care about your stench, not just the government's...

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