CHARLESTOWN — Members of the Town Council discussed the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act at Monday’s remote meeting. The item was on the agenda at the request of council Vice President Deborah Carney.
Chapter 38-2-2 of the Access to Public Records Act, or APRA, exempts elected officials, including council members, from making certain documents available to the public. Carney proposed giving councilors the option of allowing some unredacted information to be released.
“When people put in APRA requests, the Town Council gets copies of what is returned back to the person requesting the information,” she said. “There are certain items that, by law, can be redacted. That’s when the information is all blacked out so you really can’t see what it is. There are certain items that are exempt from disclosure and are clearly delineated in the law, such as legal strategies, personnel matters, items of that nature.”
Carney described the section of the law pertaining to elected officials as a “catch-all category,” and suggested that in some instances, redaction had been unnecessary.
“Recently, the Town Council received a copy of a response in which multiple documents were redacted, so it just said who it was from, who it was going to, what the subject line was, but the complete body was redacted so it was unknown what was said,” she said. “One of those items was from me, and I can say what was redacted, because it was my communication, [and] was nothing confidential. It was the request to put an item on an agenda. We then discussed this item at our agenda meeting, so there’s nothing confidential about it. It was discussed in public. In my opinion, information like that does not need be redacted.”
Carney proposed adding a sentence to the town’s procedure for responding to information requests.
“The sentence will read, ‘If the information to be deleted is exempt only because it is correspondence to or from an elected official, and no other lawful exemption applies, then the elected official shall be granted the authority to waive the deletion and authorize the release of the information,’” she said.
Town Solicitor Wyatt Brochu said the issue was too complicated to resolve at a single council meeting.
“This is a difficult topic to have in short form, because, if you go through the Attorney General’s opinions, not all these topics are black and white and the Attorney General has recognized where the release of some information is in the public interest,” he said.
Councilor David Wilkinson said he agreed with Carney about the need for transparency, but he was concerned about the possibility of information being used in litigation.
“While I agree there may be something there, I’m not sure that this is the time, in this meeting,” he said. “We could put it on the next council’s agenda to have some balance on it, but I do worry that potentially, the council is going to be making decisions that could be harmful to potential litigation or personnel issues.”
Carney responded that she believed that issues that were not deemed confidential should not be automatically redacted.
“Those are areas that are clearly defined to be exempt from disclosure,” she said. “So, my only issue is … I see something that’s redacted, it’s from me, I look at the original and I know it’s a request to be an agenda item, I know it’s nothing confidential. We discussed it in public. When it’s redacted, it gives the impression that there’s something there that we’re trying to hide, and that’s what I’m trying to avoid.”
The other council members appeared unconvinced of the need for Carney’s proposed change.
“I wonder what the problem is here and why the mechanism set up, you know, to appeal to the Town Administrator if there’s an issue or to the Attorney General, I don’t understand,” Bonnie Van Slyke said. “Deb, what is the problem? What is broken here?”
Councilor Julie Carroccia said she needed to have a better idea of the scope of the issue.
“Is this a one-time thing, this happened once over the course of the past 12 months and we’re creating this whole issue over one item?” she said. “I can’t say that I’ve seen documents like that that I was involved in, that I thought should have been disclosed and weren’t disclosed. So, you know, in most environments, you do a data-driven, not a one event-driven, change.”
Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz warned the council that everyone in an email chain would also require a waiver.
“As individuals, you can waive your rights,” he said. “But if we want to take the example and I want to use a more elaborate example than just an agenda item, if there’s an email with councilors and constituents, it’s everybody who’s on that email chain that potentially would have to get a waiver to have that document released.”
Council members agreed to continue the discussion at the October meeting, once the Town Solicitor has had time to further examine the issue.