Open records law changes; employee contracts now open
With the governor’s signature last week, new legislation makes significant changes to the state’s Access to Public Records Act.
Rhode Island was the second-to-last state to pass a public records law when it did so in 1979, and these changes, which go into effect September 1, will be the first significant changes to the statute in 14 years.
Most significantly, the law now makes public various records that were previously considered private, such as employment contracts.
Under previous law, all documents identifiable to an individual, subject to a few exceptions, were not public. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Michael J. Marcello (D-Dist. 41, Scituate, Cranston) and Sen. James C. Sheehan (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown), 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. The amended law mirrors the Federal Freedom of Information Act.
As an example, the names of individuals who have applied for a judgeship or school superintendent post, for instance, would not be public unless or until they are finalists for those positions, under the proposition that the public interest outweighs an individual’s right to privacy.
The new law will also:
Provide that 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. This prevents people from being harrassed.
Require a public body 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.
Require an arrest record 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.
Make public various records that were not previously public, 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.
Provide that all copying and search and retrieval fees shall be waived if a public body fails to comply with a request in a timely manner.
Increase the civil fine for a knowing or willful violation from $1,000 to $2,000.
Impose a $1,000 fine against a public body or official found to have recklessly violated the provisions. Current law has no fine for a reckless violation.
Provide that when a public body seeks an additional 20 business days to respond (beyond the initial 10 business days) it set forth a specific reason why additional time is necessary. Current law allows a public body to extend the time to respond up to an additional 20 business days “for good cause” but does not define good cause.
Provide that a court shall 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.)