Calling it “a new low” in the state’s enforcement of the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), five open government groups blasted an opinion issued by the Attorney General’s office which held that public bodies can charge members of the public for the time it takes to compose a letter denying an open records request.
That interpretation of the law was embodied in an AG advisory opinion, Clark v. Department of Public Safety, issued yesterday. It arose in the context of a Rhode Islander who had sought BCI and personnel records for an individual in the State Fire Marshal’s office. When the requester was denied access to the records on the grounds that they were confidential by law, he was charged a $15 fee. He then filed an appeal with the AG, leading to yesterday’s opinion. (The complaint raised a number of other APRA objections, which were also rejected in the opinion.)
APRA allows public bodies to charge for the “search and retrieval” of public records. The opinion appears to argue that because the time spent redacting records has been held to constitute “search and retrieval” time, then the time spent composing a letter to deny access can be charged as well. The portion of the opinion addressing this issue is on Pages 6 and 7.
Below are quotes denouncing the decision from representatives of Common Cause RI, ACCESS/RI, the ACLU of Rhode Island, the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition:
“The legislative intent of the statute is thwarted by the Attorney General’s new interpretation which in effect replaces the clear meaning of ‘search and retrieval’ with the opposite meaning of ‘search and denial.’ If this interpretation takes hold it would make Rhode Island the least access friendly state in New England in this regard.”
John Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island:
“By upholding the DPS’s decision to charge a citizen the costs associated with composing a letter denying their request, the Attorney General’s office has provided a blueprint for government officials to discourage public records requests.”
League of Women Voters of Rhode Island President Jane Koster:
“Too many public bodies already treat the open records statute like a series of recommended guidelines instead of a law that must be followed. This opinion only exacerbates the many problems the public already has gaining access to information.”
Linda Levin, chair of the open government group ACCESS/RI:
“We call on the Attorney General to reverse this position in future decisions. If the office does not, ACCESS/RI stands ready to seek legislation that would establish into law that the public cannot be charged in any way when records are denied.”
Here’s my statement, as the executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island:
“Allowing agencies to charge people for the privilege of having their request for records denied makes no sense, has no basis in the statute, and represents a new low in interpreting the open records law. It adds insult to injury, and is like sending a ‘Dear John’ letter postage due.”