Critics Blast Access to Open Records in Providence
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Kate Nagle, GoLocal Contributor
Following the City of Providence not releasing basic permit documents for City Council President Michael Solomon's restaurant citing privacy concerns -- and a ten day cover allowed by the Access to Public Records Act [APRA] - residents and candidates are voicing their concerns for the transparency and expediency of releasing requested information to the press -- and public.
On Thursday, GoLocal had sought to confirm whether documents were on file -- or not -- specifically for recent renovations on Solomon's Wes Rib House, as sources said they were never pulled. Solomon's camp said that the proper paperwork had been done, but the Department of Inspections and Standards, instructed by the city, stalled on handing over the files, citing in contained information that needed to be redacted, when asked only to see the permit.
"Good government advocates celebrated, a few years ago, when APRA rules were updated, but I found it almost immediately more difficult to access information at every level of government," said Justin Katz, a policy researcher with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. "The problem is that accountability is ultimately political, in our system of government, and the more process we try to layer on, the more room there is to hide from outrage."
Community Reaction to Record Request
On Friday, residents, parents, community leaders, and whistleblowers voiced concerns regarding the request for public records process.
Judith Reilly, who has submitted numerous APRA requests to obtain information surrounding questions pertaining to the Providence Economic Development Partnership, spoke of her experience, and offered her perspective.
"The Access to Public Records Act is written in plain English and involvement of City attorneys should not be necessary on most requests. Channeling all requests through the Law Department is a waste of the attorneys' time and therefore taxpayers' money," said Reilly. "Why has the Taveras administration not properly trained people in its public-facing offices to handle simple APRA requests? In the case described in golocalprov.com, it certainly seems like the permits themselves could have been handed over for examination on the spot, while the checks could have been held back to allow for redaction of account numbers (which should probably take a lot less than 10 days and needn't be done by law school graduates)."
A group of Providence parents who have voiced concerns about the Providence Public School Department's decision to move integrated pre-Kindergarten out of Vartan Gregorian - and across town -- spoke to attempts to obtain information from the city.
"The PPSD has systematically blocked any and all attempts to retrieve public data that may further define--and therefore possibly incriminate--the discrimination issues surrounding the Vartan Gregorian PreK closing. This includes a map of general student location data disclosed at a press conference before the School Board Meeting on April 16th. I've "reminded" the PPSD that they were required to give me this information BEFORE the School Board Meeting in response to a March 29th Freedom of Information Act request," said Vartan Gregorian parent Hollybeth Runco. "So far we've been ignored."
"Quite honestly, I'm stunned. This is my first time trying to work with the PPSD to help serve my home community. The PPSD has violated every right we have to public disclosure of information," continued Runco. "This is very, very unfortunate. They have forced me to make a very difficult choice: I can either give in to an administration that flaunts power and violates our right to public information OR pursue an absolutely undesired legal battle to protect our community's special needs children. The public should be outraged."
Candidates Pledge Transparency
|Providence Mayoral candidates offer their views on transparency.|
"The press and public should always have immediate access to public data. City Hall has a responsibility to fulfill any request for public data efficiently or, better still, publish that data in an easy-to-navigate online database. As Mayor, I'll make sure our press and public can go online to see permit status, whether that permit has been submitted, reviewed, approved, or rejected," said Democratic candidate Lorne Adrain. "Building permits are already online in Boston and many other cities. By 2014, this counts as a basic government service. Online permitting would also expand the city's ability to uniformly enforce codes and ordinances: residents who see work proceeding on a building could go online and see what the permit states, and report any discrepancy to the city."
Adrain continued, "A transparent City Hall and well-informed citizenry keep our elected officials accountable and our city efficient. Increasing transparency will be one of my first priorities as Mayor. When City Hall meets a simple request for information with stonewalling and evasion, public confidence decreases, making it hard for us to come together and move Providence forward. As Mayor, my plan for an efficient Providence starts with enacting the City Hall reforms outlined by the Open Providence Commission for Accountability and Transparency. We have the report: it's time to take action. After that, I'll create an online, open-to-all performance dashboard showing permits issued, roads paved, and other indicators of progress."
Democratic contender Jorge Elorza had the following to say on the issue.
"I believe the responsibility here is on Council President Solomon to take the lead in making sure that all relevant information is made public. If there's nothing to hide, then there should be no problem or delay in making the documents available," said Elorza. "It's unclear to me why the City would need 10 days to redact a document that is intended to be publicly displayed in a window at the work site. In my recent proposal to improve City services, I pledged to begin by enacting the City Hall reforms outlined by the Open Providence Commission for Accountability and Transparency. Simply put, this kind of obstruction is Old Providence, and will have no place in an Elorza City Hall."
"All city records need to be readily available to members of the press and anyone trying to do business in our city. Basic information like certificates of occupancy and approved uses for property are recorded only on index cards in old filing cabinets, and finding the right city employee to locate these records is like pulling teeth,'' said Democratic candidate Brett Smiley "Additionally, Providence has no public notice requirement on building permits, leaving neighbors in the dark whenever a new development surfaces. As Mayor, I will implement clear building and zoning requirements and will put all public records online so they can be accessed by anybody in a matter of minutes without needing to 'know a guy' in City Hall."
Dr. Daniel Harrop, the Republican candidate in the race at this time, provided his views. "It should be a simple matter to pull a verification of a building permit --even a paper one if not an on-line one. It's a public record and should be available. City Hall has continued to have this air of secrecy about it -- only certain people should get certain information," said Harrop. "There is an old maxim, that "Knowledge is power." City Hall continues to be a closed shop, and you've got to know someone to get something done."
Eye on APRA
Katz, who works with the non-profit free enterprise public policy think tank which is the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, spoke of his experience trying to obtain information at the local level.
"On the local level, for years, I was able to get statistical information about the local school district straight from the business manager for the district. It worked well, because he's just a straight-laced employee of the town supplying the public with information to which he had access," said Katz. "After the APRA changes, suddenly the superintendent was the designated agent for information requests, and he's a much more political, arguably intimidating, person with whom to deal for minor requests."
Katz continued, "My basic sense is that the government has used the "transparency" push to make it much easier for the public to get top-line data that's of limited value. But when you're a more-active citizen or a journalist, you're trying to gather information that people inside government might not want to let out, so the rigid process can be a way for the insiders to route you into roadblocks or delay the release of information."
Providence parent Kira Green provided her experience trying obtain zip code data, to get further information on the city's decision to move the Vartan Gregorian pre-K program.
"The last few years, under Mayor Taveras, the Providence School District has been utilizing data, zip code and demographic, to justify school closures and programming changes. Yet when the public whom they serve request to see this same data, that in many cases, is at the Superintendent's fingertips, we are met with a 14 day wait or an answer that we must pay as we are an "external" request," said Green.
"As a parent of children in Providence Public Schools, I don't think of myself as "external". With respect to transparency, we are going backwards as a School District. This City, met with any large educational issue, simply can't face it fairly when we are only being provided with a portion of the data vs. the full story. To make matters worse, it seems some of our elected officials have forgotten the need to question, furthering a bias that can only be traced back to those in power."
Adrain - Top Issue
"Everything starts with the economy. Real progress will happen when Providence becomes more economically competitive and jobs are being created so that everyone benefits. Schools, neighborhoods and opportunities for all will be improved when our economy takes off."
Adrain - Administration
"The top priority in an Adrain Administration would be to create meaningful and long lasting economic change. This is the biggest challenge facing Providence and my experience allows me to help lead Providence's economic recovery."
Elorza - Top Issue
"Providence must be a city of opportunity where businesses choose to locate, where graduates choose to stay, and where families choose to raise their children."
Elorza - Administration
"My top priority is to make Providence that city and to create opportunities-- strong schools, good jobs, and safe communities-- that will allow families in every one of our neighborhoods to thrive."
Harrop - Top Issue
"City finances: $600 million deficit in pension plan, $1billion deficit in benefits plan, reductions -- because of finances -- in police causing public safety concerns (down 75 from several years ago, when the academy graduates at the end of the year, given further retirements, we will really only be back up about 20-25 new officers), reduced ambulance runs, potholes, crumbling schools, etc., etc."
Harrop - Administration
"Getting the unions into the office and reminding them, again, the city cannot pay the pensions it has promised. Again, the GOP said this 8 years ago, and we were right, the Democrats wrong. We are saying this again (this time, the Dems are silent -- interpret that as you will -- I interpret it that they know we are right, but they have problems admitting their complicity in this problem). We can further negotiate reductions, or move to receivership. Until we acknowledge we cannot pay the pensions, we will be unable to come up with the money for any and all of the spending programs the Democrats are proposing. Further increasing the highest commercial tax rates in the nation is not the answer, and only further depresses the city's economic fortunes."
Smiley - Top Issue
"The most pressing issue facing Providence is our economic well-being, and that's why I've made job creation and economic development a centerpiece of my campaign. We've certainly made progress over the past few years and I'm grateful for the work Mayor Taveras has done to bring us back from the verge of bankruptcy, but we're not out of the woods yet."
Smiley - Administration
"With little left to cut and nothing left to tax, my top priority will be to grow the economy and make City Hall a place where anybody, regardless of whether they "know a guy," can easily start or grow a business."
Solomon - Top Issue
"The most pressing issue is economic development, and there are several components to this: creating jobs, growing our middle class and ensuring that every child has access to a good school. As a small business owner, I understand the challenges of running a business. I want to make it easier to do business in Providence. As City Council President, I've taken on those challenges by supporting a freeze on the commercial tax rate and moving the permitting process online, making it easier for developers to do business. I also want to rebuild our middle class and improve education, goals that can be achieved through my plan - "Rebuilding Providence" - which will invest $250 million to create 2,000 jobs and rebuild our schools."
Solomon - Administration
"As Mayor, my top priority will be creating a city with opportunity for all. I will work together with everyone in the community to rebuild Providence's middle class, create jobs and strengthen our schools. I believe the people who know best how to improve our neighborhoods are the people in living in them. As Mayor, I won't be stuck behind a desk at City Hall. I'll be a Mayor in the neighborhoods, working hand in hand with the community to rebuild Providence."