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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Asking for public records in Rhode Island could become easier, as the attorney general has issued an advisory opinion calling on government bodies to do away with antiquated communication methods.
Attorney General Peter Neronha issued the advisory opinion on Wednesday, highlighting the often-times onerous policies of government bodies that make it challenging for members of the public to even submit records requests under the Access to Public Records Act, or APRA.
“In the year 2023, when the use of digital technology including email is prolific and pervasive, there is no reason for public bodies to not provide in their procedures that they will accept APRA requests submitted by email and/or using an electronic portal,” Neronha wrote in the advisory opinion.
In many municipalities, local school committees, town councils and other public bodies currently have policies that prohibit APRA request submissions via email, forcing people to send requests through the mail, in-person or even using fax machines.
Neronha argued these antiquated policies of communications circumvent the spirit of APRA, which is intended to “ensure that the public is readily able to submit request for public records.”
“If a public body’s APRA procedures only provide for the submission of records requests through methods that are not readily accessible to members of the public, those procedures violate the APRA,” Neronha wrote. “For instance, only accepting records requests via fax would violate the APRA.”
The attorney general first raised the issue publicly last week on Newsmakers, saying public bodies often cite a ruling from his office under a former administration that requires APRA requests only to be made by fax. But he said if anyone challenged that requirement today, “we would rule otherwise.”
“I’ll start writing the challenge now,” Newsmakers host Tim White said.
“You may not need to because we might issue an advisory opinion,” Neronha responded.
The policy shift comes at the same time there’s heightened debate surrounding the state’s public records law. Gov. Dan McKee’s office and other public agencies are currently fighting a bill that open-government advocates argue would strengthen APRA, which hasn’t been updated in a decade.
Rhode Island journalists, who often use APRA to legally compel public bodies to release controversial documents, have increasingly taken to social media to share behind-the-scenes stories about the inconvenience of the process.
“In public records news, I’ve broken out the typewriter to address envelopes for public record requests to the school districts in RI that prevent access by not accepting emails,” Providence Journal reporter Wheeler Cowperthwaite tweeted earlier this month. “To be clear, this isn’t fun or funny. It’s wasteful.”
In January, the North Kingstown school district refused to release a report tied to allegations that educators were acting inappropriately unless Target 12 faxed an APRA request.
“The use of email and/or an electronic portal to accept records requests eliminates unnecessary delay and increases the accessibility of the APRA process, and public bodies in Rhode Island should take measures to ensure that their APRA procedures include either or both as an option for submitting APRA requests,” Neronha wrote.
“Doing so conforms with the purpose of the APRA and promotes the important principles behind the APRA, including increased transparency and government accountability,” he added.
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