Chairs DiPalma and Serpa hold press conference highlighting APRA reform legislation

 

            STATE HOUSE – Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Patricia A. Serpa, chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, held a press conference today to introduce legislation (2024-S 2256, 2024-H 7181) that would reform the Access to Public Records Act (APRA).

            “We lived in a very different time when the Access to Public Records Act was enacted in 1978.  The way the public accesses information and data has become far more advanced, and complicated, and the standards of transparency and accountability that the public demands and requires has also changed since that time.  No one, whether it is a private citizen or a journalist, should have to jump through unrealistic and overly complicated hoops in order know what’s going on at the State House or in the numerous city and town halls across the state.  This proposal will not only keep the public better informed of government operations, but I also truly believe that this bill will help restore trust and accountability between the public and those that serve the public.,” said Chairman DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton).

            “As we have seen with the Washington Bridge closure, access to public documents is crucial for the public to stay informed about how our state is run and managed.  Times change and so must our laws that grant the public the ability to find out what is going on in Rhode Island.  These changes to APRA are needed in our evolving and more interconnected world and I urge support for this bill that champions transparency and accountability above all,” said Chairwoman Serpa (D-Dist. 27, West Warwick, Coventry).

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

·         Allows fewer records to be withheld or redacted because of the attorney-client relationship by narrowing the exception in the current law.

·         Allows fewer records to be withheld because they are the correspondence of elected officials by narrowing the exception in the current law.

·         Traffic accident data can be released by RIDOT.

·         Owners of low-numbered license plates cannot be withheld by the DMV.

·         Any denial of records is accompanied by a log of what records were withheld and why.

·         Final reports of police misconduct investigations are public documents, as the Supreme Court of Rhode Island has ruled.

·         Body worn camera footage must be released, with limited exceptions, within 30 days of a use of force incident.

·         Records from police departments at private colleges and universities subject to APRA.

·         911 tapes can be released, under limited circumstances.

·         Documents discussed at public meetings are required to be put online when the meeting agenda is posted.

·         Requests can be made via regular mail or email.

·         Requesters can request to receive documents in electronic format that is searchable.

·         The per-page cost of copies is reduced from 15 to five cents.

·         The requester receives two hours, up from the previous one hour, of search for free.

·         The requester is not charged for the first two hours spent redacting documents.

·         The requester cannot be charged when their records request is rejected.

The legislation has support from several prominent organizations in Rhode Island who joined Chairs DiPalma and Serpa at the press conference.

            "As one of the last states in the country to pass an open records law, Rhode Island government, unfortunately, has a baked-in culture of secrecy. This bill's comprehensive reforms represent the latest important step in trying to reverse that culture. In addition, in light of the crucially legitimate demands for transparency highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, we consider particularly important the legislation's effort to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding so many police records,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director, ACLU of Rhode Island.

            "Public records laws help journalists perform their duties, but more importantly, they help the public understand what their government is doing and why. Many of the proposed changes in this bill would modernize our public records law to reflect advances in technology and the way government operates in the 21st century, taking a common-sense approach to things like email, video, and the digital storage and transmission of records,” said Scott Pickering, General Manager, East Bay Media Group.

            “Updating the public records law for the first time in more than a decade is important not just for members of the media, but for all citizens of Rhode Island. Recent events in our state have demonstrated that we need clearer rules in support of the principle that public information is truly public, and that it should be made available without egregious redactions, or charging exorbitant fees. The public records law should also be updated to account for such changes as the widespread use of body cameras by police. The time to make these changes is now,” said Michael McDermott, Board Member, ACCESS/RI.

            “Our public records law should make it as easy as possible for Rhode Islanders to access the documents they want. By lowering costs for those who request records, and raising the penalties for government agencies who don’t properly respond to those requests, this legislation seeks to make public records more accessible,” said John Marion, Executive Director, Common Cause Rhode Island.

            "Injuries and fatalities on Rhode Island's roads continue to rise.  In October 2023, RIDOT reported a 160% increase in fatalities compared to 2022. Yet the agency continues to deny public access to information on traffic crashes that could help researchers, municipalities, community members, and journalists contextualize these crashes and advocate for data-driven safety interventions. It is past time to make crash data easily accessible to the public so we can work together to end the senseless tragedy on our streets,” said Liza Burkin, Lead Organizer, Providence Streets Coalition.

            Chairman DiPalma’s legislation has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairwoman Serpa’s bill has been referred to the House State Government and Elections Committee. 

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