InvestiGATE: Sunshine Week

Each March, journalists and freedom of information advocates mark Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week, so named because of the Sunshine Act, celebrates freedom of information and encourages communities to understand the public’s right to government information. It is celebrated through activities and events, which are often hosted by nonprofits, libraries and news organizations.

In the Sunshine Act, passed in 1976, the federal government legislated necessary reporting for federal agencies. It falls under the wide umbrella of Freedom of Information acts, which can vary from state to state.

In Rhode Island, freedom of information is legislated on the state level by the Access to Public Records Act, passed in 1979. The Open Meetings Act is also a freedom of information act, which protects the public’s right to access government meetings.

These acts allow private citizens, including journalists, activists and others, to file freedom of information requests (frequently referred to as FOIA requests; in Rhode Island, these are called APRA (Access to Public Records Act) requests). Requests are typically made to the governing body that has control over a request’s content. Federal, state and local governments fulfill their own requests.

However, requests can sometimes take months, even years, to fill, and can be heavily redacted if they are. There are often exceptions to the types of information that can be requested and/or released under the act. In Rhode Island, there are a variety of exceptions, including law enforcement records, tax returns, library records and collective bargaining negotiations.

The Rhode Island attorney general’s office keeps a record of yearly reports detailing open government-related statistics and information. This data includes numbers of violations and complaints received in reference to both the Open Meetings Act and APRA. Each complaint that resulted in a violation has a brief summary included in the report.

In 2017, the report stated that 51 APRA complaints were received and 17 violations were found. These violations included complaints in Glocester, Burrillville, Johnston, East Providence, Providence, Coventry, Western Coventry, Pawtucket and Tiverton, as well as several complaints against state agencies or boards.

One violation, in North Kingstown, resulted in a lawsuit. FOR WHAT?

Seventy-one complaints were filed in regard to the Open Meetings Act, and 11 violations were found in Coventry, Western Coventry, Chariho, West Warwick, Scituate, Central Coventry, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Woonsocket and North Smithfield. No lawsuits were filed under found violations, according to the 2017 report.

The attorney general’s website includes a link to a request form that can be used to fill out a request. Complaints are emailed to the attorney general’s office.

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