May 25, 2024

Standing up for transparency

Posted

In recent months, Rhode Islanders have seen how critical it is to have ready and reliable access to public information. We’ve also been reminded of how frustrating and challenging it can be to get records that rightfully belong to the public.

In our experience as committee chairpersons fulfilling the Legislature’s oversight role we have experienced this firsthand. Through the committees work to ensure accountability and transparency in public institutions, we found that obtaining public documents and information far too often came with significant hurdles. At times, to overcome these roadblocks, it even became necessary to enlist the assistance of the Attorney General’s office.

The Access to Public Records Act, or APRA, has been a meaningful and powerful tool for transparency and accountability since it was first enacted in the late 1970s. Over the years, it has received significant updates – including through the leadership of the late Senator J. Michael Lenihan, who was a champion for good government during his time in office.

Now, once again, APRA needs reform. To be truly effective for the people of Rhode Island, this indispensable part of our law must account for the major advances in technology and communication we have seen in recent years. And it must provide protections for citizens, members of the media, and even lawmakers against efforts to hide or withhold vital public information.

This legislative session, we are proud to be sponsoring APRA reform legislation. We have worked hard since the previous session to update this proposal based on discussions with, and feedback from, a wide range of stakeholders. And we are proud to stand with Access/RI, Common Cause Rhode Island, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Rhode Island Press Association in support of these needed reforms.

Broadly, the changes being proposed would limit the cost public bodies can charge for releasing public records; require an explanation when public bodies attempt to withhold records; and expand the kinds of records that are subject to the law, in keeping with advances in technology.

As legislators, we take pride in basing our approach to complex issues on facts and data. We believe that for citizens and elected leaders alike, the best decisions are made based on a thorough understanding of the issues, and that depends on having good, comprehensive information.

We also believe that public trust in public institutions is at a perilous point, and that we must urgently take steps to repair this breach. The public can only trust government when it knows what government is doing, and how it is being done.

In the words of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” Let us ensure the sun shines brightly in Rhode Island, so that we might see the best way forward together.

Louis P. DiPalma is a Democrat representing District 12 (Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton) in the Rhode Island Senate. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. Patricia A. Serpa is a Democrat representing District 27 (West Warwick, Coventry) in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. She is Chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight.

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