Editorial: Working to spread sunshine across area towns, school districts

Editorial: Working to spread sunshine across area towns, school districts

The Westerly Sun

As part of Sunshine Week, an annual effort by the American Society of News Editors to celebrate access to public information around the March 16 birthday of James Madison — father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights — we sent our reporters to town halls to ask for basic public documents.

This is a fairly routine task for reporters, but depending on the documents sought, the interaction can be either friendly or challenging. The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act is intended to significantly reduce the instance of challenging interactions between the public and public bodies and agencies.

The act defines agency or public body as “any executive, legislative, judicial, regulatory, or administrative body of the state, or any political subdivision thereof; including, but not limited to, any department, division, agency, commission, board, office, bureau, authority, any school, fire or water district — yes, fire districts are included — or other agency of Rhode Island state or local government which exercises governmental functions, any authority [as described in a separate act] or any other public or private agency, person, partnership, corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of and/or in place of any public agency.”

The act also makes clear that a public employee’s right to privacy is to be guarded and respected. It is equally important to know that a member of the public is not required to provide their name or the reason they want the information when requesting a document. Recordings, maps and other forms of documentation fall under the act as well. All towns in our region, however, except Richmond, have forms on their websites asking for this information. Charlestown indicates a name is optional, but the Westerly and Hopkinton forms give one the impression that a name is required. The forms also have a space to detail exactly what is being sought. This latter part is intended to provide more efficient service. The forms also allow town officials to document their responses to such requests, but again no form or other identifying information is required.

Our request for a Westerly document listing roads accepted by the town was met with two APRA cardinal sins: Our reporter was asked to identify herself and she was asked why she wanted the information. The clerk at the engineering office also called the town manager’s office, presumably for direction, but there was no response and the document was provided.

As for the Westerly School Department, a request on Wednesday for the 2016-17 salaries of all building principals, or a salary range, went unanswered as of Friday afternoon. And the proposed school budget was not made available until after the School Committee’s first budget discussion, meaning the public and our reporter could not follow along as the superintendent presented his proposal.

We received the documents we sought in other towns — including Stonington, which must subscribe to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act — without hesitation.

Our education reporter, Anna Maria Della Costa, notes that the Westerly School Committee’s agenda packets frequently are lacking some public documents being discussed during meetings. On many occasions, officials hand out copies of agenda material to committee members, but not to the public in attendance, and some of these documents never appear online. On the other hand, the Stonington Board of Education routinely has multiple packets of all agenda items available for the public at the start of each meeting.

Since 2013, Rhode Island has required that all public bodies annually document to the Attorney General’s Office that “all officers and employees who have the authority to grant or deny persons or entities access to records under this chapter have been provided orientation and training regarding this chapter.” From what we’ve seen, this training falls by the wayside. There are numerous instances, not mentioned here, in which Westerly agencies have run afoul of the most basic tenets of the act. The law and the training need to be taken seriously. As we have said many times in this space, town halls, school departments, fire district offices and the like are repositories of public documents. They don’t own the documents.


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