After more than a decade of a stagnate public records law, new legislation was discussed Wednesday in a Rhode Island House committee hearing that would, among other things, decrease the amount of time agencies have to respond to records requests and increase fines for noncompliance.
The proposed bill would limit the time to three days instead of the current 10, with some exceptions. Police departments would have just 24 hours to respond to requests seeking arrest reports. Agencies facing larger and more complicated requests would see their time frame reduced from 30 days to 20.
Public agencies not complying with these time limits would face fines of $15,000, up from the current $1,000.
Although opponents of the bill say these new requirements would create insurmountable financial hurdles for public bodies, supporters of the bill think the changes would help Rhode Island catch up to other New England states in terms of an effective open records statute. Aside from Massachusetts, all other nearby states have time limits of five days or less, said Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in the state.
“Providing access to public records should be among the priorities of any government agency,” Brown said. “It is providing assistance to the public in a matter that a public body should be eager to do. It’s more changing a mindset than imposing additional burdens.”
Another major facet of the legislation includes requiring all state agencies to train employees who are designated to respond to records requests and show in writing that the training occurred. Additionally, individuals would not have to identify themselves when seeking public documents or say why they’re asking for them.
The bill is currently facing committee discussion in the state House, with a companion bill making its way through the state Senate as well.