Rhode Island’s public records law may get some much-needed revisions if a bill heard by the House Judiciary Committee last night becomes law.
The proposal, introduced by Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, would be the first amendment to the Access to Public Records Act in 15 years. It would: decrease the amount of time a public agency has to make public records available from ten to 7 days; require municipalities and government agencies to designate and train a public records officer; require police departments to make initial arrest reports available within 24 hours; and would make correspondences between elected officials regarding policy public documents.
Officials with the Attorney General’s office, which submitted a separate bill that doesn’t reach as far, the Department of Administration and local and state police took issue with the legislation, advocates for civil liberties and open government applauded the effort.
“This may impose some additional burdens on government employees but it should be accepted as an important part of their work,” said Steve Brown, the executive director of the RI ACLU.
Brown said people and organizations that seek public records in Rhode Island often run into problems obtaining them. He said the changes would improve citizen’s access to public records.
While police are against compelling arrest reports to be made available within 24 hours, saying this could be onerous for officers, John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause RI, said making arrest reports available as quickly as possible is an important function of a free society.
“Arresting someone is the strongest action the state can take against an individual,” he said. “When the state takes away someone’s liberty – that’s what an arrest represents – the state should provide information about that in as timely as manner as possible.”
There is also a Senate bill, sponsored by James Sheehan, D- North Kingstown, that would update the Access to Public Records Act that open records advocates say doesn’t go as far as this one in ensuring that citizens have easy access to public records.