Open government advocates expressed frustration Tuesday about what they called diminished access to information and records under the administration of Governor Gina Raimondo. The governor's chief of staff, Stephen Neuman, responded by vowing the state will do better and by issuing a memo calling on state agencies to prioritize disclosure in difficult cases "whenever possible."
Newport Daily News executive editor Sheila Mullowney, representing the Rhode Island Press Association, called Neuman's memo "a good first step." But she also cited "a systemic problem getting information even of the most routine kind" on subjects like the old Sakonnet River Bridge.
WPRI-TV investigative reporter Tim White, speaking for the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the issue comes down to a matter of choices. "If the administration wants to be opaque, it will find an exemption" to bar the release of a record sought by the media. On the other hand, White said, "The administration can be transparent if it wants to be."
Neuman, joined by a handful of other state officials, faced representatives of five open government groups during a one-hour later afternoon meeting in his first-floor State House office. The gathering was triggered by the groups' recent letter about what they called a "disturbingly inadequate pattern" of responses to requests for public information.
The cases in point include the governor's controversial toll proposal, an almost $400 million state health benefits computer system, and the hiring for a state job of former state rep Don Lally, who is the subject of a revolving door complaint.
Jane Koster, president of the Rhode Island chapter of the League of Women Voters, said she's heard from many people who feel the state hasn't been forthcoming enough about Lally's hiring.
Neuman defended the Raimondo administration's broader efforts, pointing to how it supported the release of 38 Studios documents and created a new web site "to provide a greater level of transparency for citizens into how state dollars are spent," as he put it in his memo.
The memo said the state should generally try to release documents and information. Neuman's memo also calls for better customer service in responding to public-records requests. "As we strive to make even more progress, we should also continue improving our efforts to provide a window into the operations of state government for all the citizens of Rhode Island," he wrote.
Yet media representatives said getting information from spokespeople for different state agencies has become more difficult since Raimondo became governor in January.
Providence Journal interim executive editor Susan Areson said many of agency spokespeople feel they have to check with the governor's office before they can answer questions from reporters. "That's a real roadblock for us," Areson said, adding that the Journal has had to make much greater use of the state's Access to Public Records (APRA) law than in the past.
Neuman said he hopes to continue the conversation and he said the state will try to be more responsive to media requests for information. He said the state may consider some previous rejections of records requests.
At the same time, Raimondo's legal counsel, Claire Richards, characterized some requests for public records as overly broad. In one instance, she said, an intern in her office missed a better educational experience by having to search boxes of records in response to a request that might produce one or two documents. Give us the boxes, responded White.
Michael DiBiase, director of the state Department of Administration, said DOA is "struggling" with the balancing test contained in a 2012 revision of APRA that pits the public's right to know against privacy interests. He said releasing personnel records gets thorny when they raise issues of a worker's health or disciplinary record.
Raimondo's communications director, Joy Fox, and a top lieutenant in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Jennifer Wood, were among those attended the meeting.
Ultimately, Neuman told representatives of the media and other open government groups, "The message you're conveying is loud and clear. We believe in the same values that you believe in."
Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, said he was pleased the governor's office assembled a number of people to discuss the concerns about open government. Brown added, "I think ultimately time will tell whether there's a change in the way the administration responds to open records requests."
This post has been updated.