1997-1998 indexDistributed March 16, 1998
A Rhode Island records audit
Study finds RI cities and towns not fully compliant with open records law
Researchers were given access to public documents nearly 85 percent of the time during a recent audit of public records access in Rhode Island cities and towns. The study, conducted by students at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, provides detailed statistical data on compliance by town clerks, school boards and police departments.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- In a statewide audit of Rhode Island cities and towns conducted by students at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, researchers were given access to nearly 85 percent of the public documents they requested - documents to which any citizen has a legal right of access, such as daily police logs and minutes of school committee and town council meetings.
Of the three municipal departments studied in the audit, town and city clerks were the most forthcoming, providing requested documents 100 percent of the time. School departments followed closely at 94.1 percent compliance. Police departments fulfilled approximately 35 percent of requests.
The study's final report was released this morning (Monday, March 16, 1998) during a press briefing at the Cranston Public Library.
"While a statewide figure of nearly 85 percent might seem like a reasonably good result, it falls far short of what is required by Rhode Island law," said Ross Cheit, associate professor of political science at Brown University, who supervised the eight Brown students who participated in the study. "All the documents our researchers requested are clearly covered by Rhode Island's open records legislation." Eight cities and towns achieved a 100-percent compliance rating, Cheit said, which indicates that full compliance is within the reach of any municipality.
The Brown students, together with 17 students as one assignment in a public affairs reporting course taught at URI by Professor Linda Levin, visited every city and town in Rhode Island at least twice last fall, from mid-October through December. They asked for publicly available documents from town clerks, school departments and police departments and recorded their experiences. Additional follow-up visits were made in about a dozen municipalities in December and January to resolve questions from the original research.
"This kind of systematic statewide analysis has never been attempted as far as we know," said Levin. "The size of our state and the manageable number of cities and towns allowed us to be comprehensive in our data gathering and to make comparisons of separate departments like police or school boards across all municipalities."
Student researchers collected data based on responses to the following questions: Did they receive the documents they requested? Were they asked to identify themselves or to give a reason why they wanted the documents? Did they have to make repeated trips? In addition to statistical data, the students recorded their own reactions to their visits, including the degree of courtesy they felt they had been given.
Their 78-page report, Access to Public Records: An Audit of Rhode Island's Cities and Towns, provides detailed results for each Rhode Island city and town. Copies of the report are available at public libraries and on the Internet at http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/FOI_Study.html.
Financial support for the project was provided by ACCESS/RI, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing freedom of information in Rhode Island. Additional support was provided by the Taubman Center and by the Department of Journalism at the University of Rhode Island.
The researchers offered five recommendations to bring Rhode Island cities and towns into full compliance with the state's open records laws.