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Open government groups demand transparency

Five groups meet with governor’s administration, discuss mishandling of APRA requests

Members of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s staff and open government groups met Oct. 20 to discuss the administration’s lack of responsiveness to and denial of Access to Public Records Act requests. Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Providence Journal, the Newport Daily News and ACCESS/RI, a coalition of organizations that aims to improve citizen access to records and processes of the state government, were present at the meeting, among others.

The meeting was held in response to a letter sent by five open government groups — ACCESS/RI, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island — detailing how, in three specific cases, the Raimondo administration did not follow the guidelines of APRA. Instead the administration denied these requests when there was no reason for them to be denied. The letter also urged Raimondo to issue an executive order that “emphasizes (her) administration’s commitment to open government.”

The meeting allowed these groups to air their grievances and ensure that the administration understands the gravity of a lack of transparency, said Steven Brown, executive director of the RIACLU.

“The key thing about the meeting was everybody in the governor’s staff was put on notice that these problems were occurring and (that) something needs to be done about it,” Brown said. During the meeting, the governor’s staff agreed to conduct a review of each of the APRA denials that formed the basis for the letter, Brown added.

During the meeting, Stephen Neuman, the governor’s chief of staff, distributed a memo that he had also sent to every department head. The memo encouraged each department to increase transparency and timeliness in its response to APRA requests, said Linda Levin, president of ACCESS/RI.

The memo was “not the strongest statement,” Levin said. Department heads should not need encouragement from Raimondo’s staff because transparency is required through the law, she added.

But the memo “was a good beginning for a discussion,” Levin said, adding that she thinks the groups will see change from the administration.

The problem is not unique to the Raimondo administration — it happens “in every administration,” she said.

“But this is why you have to have these watchdog groups,” she added. “If we don’t know what the government is doing, we don’t really have a democracy.”

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