This morning I wrote a letter to the members of the RI House Judiciary Committee in advance of their hearing on House Bill 5098, a Bill which would limit access to what is currently considered Public Record in the state of Rhode Island. Read more about it here. I am sharing this letter to draw attention to this little discussed piece of legislation which would have damaging effects to our state and move us backwards on the issue of Government transparency:
To the honorable members of the RI House Judiciary Committee:
House Bill 5098 is an attempt to redefine “Public Records” in the state of Rhode Island. While the goal of the legislation is laudable and several portions would be welcome changes to RI’s definition (including the specific exclusion of medical Records), one portion of this legislation sets Rhode Island up for potential suit and takes our state backwards on the important issue of Government transparency.
I am one of the leaders in the Records and Information Management community, President of the Information Coalition (a group that establishes best practices in information management and Records), as well as a resident of Rhode Island. I am a leading authority on these topics, both locally, nationally, and internationally. I offer myself as a resource to this legislative body in the future and would gladly refer members of this committee to other experts in the field.
I urge the RI House Judiciary to reject this Bill for reasons of the Bill’s intent as well as the inevitability that the state of Rhode Island will be challenged on the legality of this Bill.
A Public Record exists to explain the “why”, not just the “what” of a piece of information. The reason that pieces of information such as “preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products” have not been excluded from the Public Records definition is because the final product shows just one aspect of a public Record, the “what”, but excludes the rationale and process of the public Record coming to being, the “why”.
I urge the RI House Judiciary to reject this Bill and in its’ stead work on adapting the widely accepted and tested definition of Public Record as defined by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) or risk opening the state up to potential liability.
Further, Rhode Islanders have a right to public information as expressed nationally through the Freedom of Information Act and state wide through RI Statute Chapter 38-2. At a time when public scrutiny of government action is more important than ever, it is disturbing that this body would attempt to specifically exclude portions of what are currently considered public Records from future scrutiny.
I urge you to reject this Bill outright because of these concerns or to spend additional time ensuring that the public right to information is not infringed on while achieving the other laudable goals of this Bill.
Thank you for your consideration on the incredibly important matter.
UPDATE: Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee returned my call to discuss this bill and I applaud her openness in discussion. The goal of the changes to the current language is to protect researchers, specifically climate science researchers, from being flooded with open Records requests with the goal of sidelining climate research scientists from completing their research.
I have written this in response and plan to attend this evening’s hearing with the hopes of changing some of the existing language:
Ironically, the part of the Bill that I found most troubling is already a part of our law (I wish I’d been as vigilant in previous years). It is the portion directly prior to the changes that you’re proposing that I find worrying. I’m not sure that section K, in its’ current form would stand up to judicial scrutiny.
Current version: “(K) Preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products; provided, however, any documents submitted at a public meeting of a public body shall be deemed public.”
That seemingly goes against the guidance of NARA with regards to public accessibility. While I understand and applaud your intention to protect researchers, would it be possible to reword section K to carve out the exception solely for research?
I would suggest something akin to:
“(K) Research at state institutions of higher education on commercial, scientific, artistic, technical, or scholoarly issues, are specifically excluded from the definition of public Records including preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products, whether in electronic or other format; provided, however, any documents submitted at a public meeting of a public body shall be deemed public.”
My concern is with the “preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products” language being applied broadly to all governmental entities. That would seemingly be going against the spirit of federal open Records mandates.
Again, thank you for your call on this issue. I will be available for this evening’s hearing.