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STATE

Access to public records was a problem in the bridge shutdown. Will that help reforms pass?

Patrick Anderson
Providence Journal

Could interest in what happened to the Washington Bridge be a catalyst for changes to state open-records law that make it easier for the public to find out what state and local governments are doing?

Press-freedom and good-government groups hope so, and on Thursday aimed at freeing public documents from transparency-shy officials.

"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," said Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, the House sponsor of the bill. "Times change, and so must our laws that grant the public the ability to find out what is going on in Rhode Island."

How old is RI's public-access law, and how would it change?

The bill would make dozens of changes to Rhode Island's Access to Public Records Act, much of which dates back to its enactment in 1978.

The changes include making public a broad range of records: correspondence to elected officials, footage captured on police body cameras, some 911 calls, the owners of low-numbered license plates, and street traffic crash data.

It would also have Rhode Island join other states where the final reports of police-misconduct investigations are public.

In addition to expanding the types of documents the public can access, the bill would also reduce the price that government bodies routinely charge for members of the press and public to get records.

Copying charges would be sliced from 15 cents to 5 cents per page under the bill, and officials would have to double the amount of free search time requesters would get to two hours. Free redaction time would be similarly doubled.

What are the chances the public-records access reforms will pass?

Public-records reform is a perennial issue, and it is unclear whether the bill has any chance of overcoming opposition from the government officials who have to comply with the Access to Public Records Act.

Gov. Dan McKee's office and the state Police Chief's Association were among those who opposed last year's version, arguing that the changes would impose a costly burden that would ultimately be borne by taxpayers.

To try to soften some of that opposition, members of AccessRI, a coalition of groups pushing for records reform, met with representatives of state agencies and police chiefs to hear their concerns.

Steve Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said of the 47 changes made to last year's version of the bill, 21 were based on suggestions from those who had found the bill burdensome.

How did the Washington Bridge make records access an issue?

Public-records law jumped into the news last week when the state Department of Transportation charged some media organizations for emails documenting how structural problems with the Washington Bridge were discovered in December.

"It's a perfect example of something that is in the public interest," John Marion Jr., executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said Thursday about the Washington Bridge emails.

The bill would allow someone to request that search charges be waived directly to the agency with the records instead of having to go to Superior Court.

The Providence Streets Coalition joined the effort to expand access to public records in response to the DOT withholding traffic crash information provided in other states.

"It goes back to, the public can only trust government when they know what's going on," said Sen. Louis DiPalma, longtime Senate sponsor of records-reform bills.

McKee spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said the "governor鈥檚 office looks forward to reviewing the details of this legislation."