ACLU and Common Cause Raise Concerns About Suspension of Open Government Laws

Stating that “[g]overnment transparency and support of the public’s right to know are more, not less, critical during emergency situations,” the ACLU of RI and Common Cause RI have urged Governor Gina Raimondo to revise an executive order she issued this week that suspends certain provisions of the state’s open meetings and public records laws. In  a detailed letter sent to the Governor, the two organizations recognized a need to relax some provisions of those laws, but said that the Order did not sufficiently protect the public’s interests in government transparency.

Among the changes urged by the two groups to the Order’s suspension of certain provisions in the Open Meetings Act to allow for remote meetings:

• Clarifying that should a public body continue to meet in person, it must still provide (1) remote access to members of the public; (2) in-person access to the media, by pool arrangement if necessary; and (3) in-person access to members of the public to the extent not inconsistent with the state’s 25-person attendance limitations for public gatherings;

• Specifying that in the event audio or video coverage of a proceeding or meeting is interrupted, the presiding official shall suspend the discussion until the audio or video is restored;

• Requiring public bodies to record all meetings and make the recording available on a public website on a timely basis.

The letter also urged that another provision in the Order, allowing public bodies to take an additional twenty business days to response to requests under the Access to Public Records Act, be allowed to lapse next month. Public bodies currently have up to thirty business days to respond to requests, and the letter notes that the Order “means that important records could be withheld from the public for almost two-and-a-half months.” The letter noted: “Government transparency and support of the public’s right to know are more, not less, critical during emergency situations.” The letter called on the Governor to let that provision of the Order expire on April 15th.

The letter from the two groups concluded: “It is important at this time for all Rhode Islanders to trust what government is doing to protect them, and ensuring that the government continues to act in a transparent manner is critical to maintaining that trust.”