The Office of Attorney General filed a complaint in Rhode Island Superior Court citing the City of Woonsocket for two knowing and willful violations of the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act (APRA).
On December 21, 2012, the Law Offices of Michael Kelly made an APRA request to the City. The City represented that it did not see the APRA request until January 2, 2013. The City then extended the time to respond to said APRA request by 20 additional business days pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-7(b). By the City's own calculations, a response to said APRA request was due by February 13, 2013. On March 15, 2013, after receiving no response to his office's APRA request, Mr. Kelly filed an APRA complaint with the Office of Attorney General, alleging that the City failed to respond to his APRA request. On April 2, 2013, the City provided a response to said APRA request, but failed to address Request No. 8, which stated, "Any and all documents, correspondence and communications, including e-mails, including but not limited to a purchase agreement, that relate to the acquisition of land for the new water treatment plant."
In a previously released finding, Law Offices of Michael Kelly v. City of Woonsocket, PR 13-13, the Office of Attorney General found that the City violated the APRA when it failed to timely respond to the December 21, 2012 APRA request. The Office of Attorney General further found the City violated the APRA when it failed to provide documents responsive to Request No. 8, or in the alternative, provide a reason exempting these documents.
Under the APRA, a public body has 10 business days to respond to a request for documents. R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-7. If the public body denies the request, a written response detailing the specific reasons for the denial shall be sent within those 10 business days to the person or entity making the request. R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-7(a). If no response is sent within 10 business days, the lack of response will be deemed a denial. R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-7(b). If, for good cause, the public body cannot comply with a records request within 10 business days, then the public body may extend the period an additional 20 business days, for a total of 30 business days. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 38-2-7(a) and 38-2-3(e).
After further investigation, the Office of Attorney General released a supplemental finding, Law Offices of Michael Kelly v. City of Woonsocket, PR 13-13B, wherein it determined that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the City knowingly and willfully violated the APRA on both counts. First, with respect to the City's untimely response to the December 21, 2012 APRA request, the City's explanation was that it was "short-staffed."
As noted in the supplemental finding, "We refuse to allow public bodies to justify their non-compliance with the APRA by simply asserting that they are short-staffed without any other reasonable, good faith explanation and evidence." Second, the City has yet to completely respond to Request No. 8. Even though the City argues that the purchase and sales agreement is publically available, Request No. 8 is much broader and the City has failed to respond to the remainder of the request.
As referenced in both findings, the Office of Attorney General has previously found the City in violation of the APRA on three occasions, including one violation that resulted in a lawsuit. In 2009, the Office of Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the City for knowingly and willfully violating the APRA when the City failed to provide any response to an APRA request made by the Woonsocket Fire Fighters Association Local No. 732. In that lawsuit, the City cited the same reason, being "short-staffed," for failing to comply with the APRA.
In a 2010 consent judgment, the City acknowledged it was required to respond to an APRA request within 10 business days of receipt of the request, subject to the 20 business day extension. The City further agreed to pay the State a civil fine of $1,000 for willfully and knowingly violating Rhode Island General Laws § 38-2-7(a).
"We recognize that many cities and towns are struggling financially, but that cannot be held out as an excuse for failing to comply with the law," said Attorney General Kilmartin. "Government has an obligation to its citizenry to be transparent and responsive. In this instance, as in the past, the City of Woonsocket failed to be both."
The maximum penalty under the APRA is $2,000 for each knowing and willful violation.