The Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office held their 21st Annual Open Government Session on July 19. The three hour session sought to explain how the Open Meetings Act (OMA) and the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) work.
The Open Meetings Act are the laws that govern the ways in which governmental meetings are noticed and conducted, and the rights of the public when attending such meetings, under the law.
The Access to Public Records Act are laws that govern how the public can access information normally not released by the government. ARA allows the public to see and review public documents for themselves.
Both Acts seek to put checks on government power, and allow the public access into the decision making process.
In his opening statements to those attending the Open Government Summit, said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha, set the bar for openness and transparency pretty high, with lofty rhetoric.
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“You know this is the 21st Summit,” said Neronha. “It’s my first, so the only person who could possibly screw it up is me. We’re all on the same team on this because government transparency, government openness, builds confidence in what we do. I’ve always felt like if there’s a decision that I make that I can’t explain or defend, then maybe I shouldn’t be making that decision. I never, unless there’s a really good reason, to protects someone’s safety or privacy, I want to make my decisions public and I want to explain what they are.
“It’s why I almost never turned down an inquiry from the press to go on and speak with them – not because I love seeing my face on TV or get on the on radio, sometimes I don’t sound like the smartest guy in the room – but I feel like I should be able to explain what I did and the best person to be able to explain what I did is me.
“That’s my overarching message to you – if you’re making the decisions, do them in sunlight. Be in a position to explain and if you’re not there yet, if
you’re not ready to explain them, then you’re probably not ready to make them.
“These statutes are complicated. When I took over as Attorney General in January one thing I knew was that I didn’t understand these statutes in depth. The reality is I never had to implement them previously,” continued Neronha. “When I was United States Attorney we had a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] Unit in Washington. If a request came it went down to DC and DC dealt with it.
“But I knew one thing. I said this to my folks, that I didn’t want to die on a transparency hill. I knew that over the course of my tenure that four year term, that they’re going to be issues that came up where the decisions I made, I might be comfortable with them but others would not be. And so those were the battles I knew I was going to have to fight. To try to explain to people what I did why did it, but where I didn’t want there to be a lack of confidence was how I was in handling openness and transparency.
“What I’ve asked our folks to do is to rethink every decision that we made in the past, to rethink how we’ve done everything, from the way we write decisions (and that’s changed. It’s been a subtle change but if you’ve read those decisions we’ve changed how we write them.) but also to think about every fork in the road. Every fork in the road that comes up when interpreting these statutes.
“Because there are some things that are very clear as to what you can and what you can’t do. Then there are things that are not so clear. There are times when you’re going to have to exercise your discretion. I think that’s where the rubber meets the road. I wanted my people to rethink every time, when answering our own requests, to err on the side of openness, to think whether or not we should be withholding information.
“It’s why we reversed course on the Google Documents. To me, there was no reason to withhold those records at all, so we shouldn’t be withholding them, and we certainly shouldn’t have been withholding them on a technicality. As to whether something is a memorandum or not, that was the distinction, if a document said memorandum on it then it could be withheld. The same information, if memorandum wasn’t there, then it wouldn’t be withheld. To me that was a distinction without a distinction. That was not a fork in the road that we should choose to get down on the side of non transparency,” continued Neronha.
“Those are the kinds of decisions that you have to make.I would encourage you to make them on the side of transparency.
“You know, getting back to the Google information, we put it in our annual report and that was not by accident. Our annual report was issued around July 1. I wanted people to see how we spent the money, and how my predecessor, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin spent the money… I think he spent it well. I think he spent it in ways that serve the public well…
“To me what it comes down to is, you should ask the question that I used to ask when we’re talking about cases we’re prosecuting. It’s the can we/should we question. Can we charge this person with this crime, but should we charge this person? That should always be a prosecutor’s question. It should always be the question in this space. Can we withhold? The answer may be yes, but you have to ask the next question, which is whether you should withhold.
“If I know I’m going to turn it over eventually anyway on an APRA, why don’t I just turn it over voluntarily? Why am I making it more difficult? Why am I shrouding something in secrecy in the first instance, that’s going to come out anyway? Why am I diminishing the confidence you need in the office that I can build by giving it voluntarily? My advice to you is to turn over as much as you can, as voluntarily as you can, and you will build confidence in you and the decisions that you make,” concluded Neronha.
Below is the presentation on the APRA:
Below is the presentation of the OMA:
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