Public trust is an essential ingredient in an effective government. Residents need to know their leaders are working in their best interests in order for the town and its people to thrive.
The best way to do so is to keep tabs on government leaders. When business is conducted in the light of day, there is less chance of the corruption that has notoriously affected Rhode Island throughout much of its history, which increases public confidence and trust, further strengthening a government.
The Access to Public Records Act serves that very purpose. Not only does the letter of the law ensure that all residents can attain government documents they need — land surveys, accident or arrest reports, etc. — the spirit of the law makes the government more accountable to those it is supposed to serve.
When it’s followed properly, that is.
Part of the APRA requires that employees of a municipal or state agency who handle public records requests must be formally trained on the requirements of the open records statute, training the Attorney General’s office provides at its open government summit. However, a recently released audit shows that six towns — including Warren — have failed to certify that any employees are trained to properly handle records requests. Several state agencies — including the General Assembly, the body that actually approved the APRA — also failed the test conducted by Access/RI and Muckrock.
It may seem like a technicality to some, but the certification plays an important role in ensuring an open government. It assigns specific individuals to handle records requests, helping prevent the runaround designed to make an organization appear compliant without actually complying. It also takes the “ignorance of the law” excuse away from those agencies that would sooner operate behind closed doors.
Equally important, training employees in properly handling requests assures the public that government agencies are taking the APRA seriously, not just giving lip service.
All state and municipal government agencies must be accountable to the people they serve, and they must be held accountable when they fail to do so. Warren, Charlestown, East Greenwich, Newport, Johnston and Richmond need to take the Access to Public Records Act seriously and immediately train staff members so residents can trust they are working in the public’s best interests.