Public records: a little more sunlight

This Just In
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 13, 2012

tim-white-statehouse_main
‘GUT CHECK’ White.

Late Tuesday night, as the legislative session came to a close, the General Assembly passed a bill strengthening Rhode Island's deplorable public records law. Governor Chafee, though he has expressed some reservations about the bill, is expected to sign it.

Until now, the law has shut off access to all records "which are identifiable to an individual" — a sweeping exemption that has frustrated all manner of curious citizens and prying reporters.

The bill strips out that language and imposes a balancing test in line with federal law, deeming these sorts of records public unless release would constitute "a clearly unwarranted violation of personal privacy." There's still plenty of room for an overly protective city clerk to shut down access, but it's an improvement.

There were disappointments, though. An attempt to make correspondence between elected officials about public business — a la the Sarah Palin emails that made headlines last year — was squashed.

I caught up with WPRI-TV investigative reporter Tim White, a reform advocate who serves on the board of the New England First Amendment Center, for a Q&A a few hours before the bill passed.

He was pleased with the gains enshrined in the bill, but disappointed in the measure's shortcomings. The interview is edited and condensed.

I'M WONDERING IF YOU COULD PUT IN PERSPECTIVE JUST HOW AWFUL RHODE ISLAND'S PUBLIC RECORDS LAW IS AT PRESENT. I have worked in other markets and when I came here I was absolutely stunned to find how much was sealed from public inspection. And as I got more familiar with our public records law, I realized that Rhode Island is in the dark ages.

Rhode Island has a reputation [for] corruption — it's not always fair, but some of it is earned. And I think the public records law has a lot to do with it, honestly. I'm not being overdramatic here. I think that because public records law keeps so much sealed from inspection, it's created a petri dish for bad things to grow in the dark.

YOU DO A LOT OF INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING. GIVE ME A SENSE FOR HOW THE PUBLIC RECORDS LAW LIMITS YOUR WORK. Because our law is the way it is, it actually almost prevented many of our bigger investigations from seeing the light of day. There have been a couple of circumstances where getting records made the difference in a story and it took the courage of someone inside government to leak me that information. That isn't a good way to practice our trade. But it's a necessary way in this state. It takes someone with a lot of backbone, out there, who wants to see change, who wants to end government waste or corruption.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR SOMEONE WHO REPORTS ON STATE GOVERNMENT TO LOBBY FOR A BILL ON SMITH HILL? This was an enormously uncomfortable experience and I had to have a real gut check, because I report on the General Assembly. And on a day-to-day basis, I have to be objective about my reporting. I was sticking my neck out in endorsing or not endorsing legislation that lawmakers were considering. So I had to, anytime I was doing a story on the public records law — or say I was interviewing a politician on Newsmakers — I had to disclose my involvement, which is not ideal. But it's something I decided I had to do, because we're getting killed out there.

  Topics: This Just In , Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, Tim White,  More more >
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