Taubman Center study
Most R.I. quasi-public agencies do not comply with public access laws
A study of the 23 Rhode Island quasi-public agencies that were included in the governor’s budget for fiscal year 2004 shows that more than one-third submitted incomplete minutes of their meetings during 2002 to the secretary of state and more than one-quarter submitted no minutes at all. The study, conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, also found that no agency submitted all of its minutes within the statutory deadline.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A new study conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University has found that more than one-third of Rhode Island quasi-public agencies in the sample did not submit complete minutes of all their meetings in 2002 to the secretary of state, as required by law, and more than one-quarter submitted no minutes at all.
Quasi-public agencies manage or oversee finances for a wide range of public functions in the state, including sewage systems, airports, public transportation, student loans, economic policy, clean water and the state lottery. They are considered to be government bodies for purposes of the Access to Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. Quasi-public agencies number in the dozens in Rhode Island. The exact number is unknown, according to the researchers, since some agencies on the books are no longer operating.
Editors: Copies of the study are available in print through the News Service or at the Taubman Center Web site: www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/FOI
“Widespread noncompliance and tardiness in filing minutes with the secretary of state do not bode well for the implementation of the electronic posting of materials in 2004,” the study group’s report says. “The need for extensive monitoring and, if necessary, corrective action is clear. ... More attention needs to be focused on the justification for closed meetings and on the obligation to release additional information, particularly about votes, once the need for secrecy has passed.”
In order to determine how well quasi-public agencies comply with provisions of the Open Meetings Act, the researchers focused on the 23 agencies that were included in the governor’s budget for fiscal year 2004, since those agencies are both active and supported by public funds. Researchers spent June and July studying all minutes of calendar year 2002 meetings available at the secretary of state’s office, with final research checks performed through Aug. 8, 2003. Their findings:
Rhode Island law requires that minutes be deposited with the secretary of state within 35 days of a meeting. The researchers found that no agency had a perfect record for timeliness, although several were close enough to be considered excellent, including the Lottery Commission, the Narragansett Bay Commission, and the Turnpike and Bridge Authority.
The law recognizes that, from time to time, quasi-public agencies will discuss matters that cannot or should not be disclosed immediately – sensitive negotiations or personnel issues, for example, or strategies for acquiring property. In cases where a meeting enters into executive session, the law requires the agency to cite the appropriate statute and subsection and to specify the nature of the business to be discussed. With some exceptions, votes taken in executive session are required to be disclosed when the meeting returns to open session.
With regard to executive sessions, the researchers found that:
Research for the report was conducted by Morriah Horani, a 2002 graduate of Brown. Ross E. Cheit, associate professor of political science, supervised the project and edited the report. Support for the project came from Brown University and from ACCESS/RI through a grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition.