AG's office files lawsuit against Woonsocket for APRA violations

AG's office files lawsuit against Woonsocket for APRA violations

WOONSOCKET – Saying that you're "understaffed" is not an adequate excuse for not following public records law, according the state Attorney General's office, which filed a complaint in Rhode Island Superior Court today against the city of Woonsocket for failing to provide documents related to the project for building a new water treatment plant requested by Attorney Michael Kelly.

The office, which monitors compliance with the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act, ruled that the city had violated the law last July, but less common move of taking the matter to court is seen as an indication that the office considers the violation both "willful and knowing."

The complaint references a public records request made by Kelly on Dec. 21, 2012. City Clerk Andrea Bicki has said that she was on vacation at the time, and did not see the request until Jan. 2. The city requested 20 additional business days to respond, but when Kelly had not received anything by March 15, he notified the Attorney General's office.

The office states that on April 2, the city did provide a response, 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.”

Under the APRA, a public body has 10 business days to respond to a request for documents. 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. If no response is sent within 10 business days, the lack of response will be deemed a denial. 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.

The Attorney General's office has found that the city knowingly and willfully violated the APRA on both counts: with respect to the untimely response to the December APRA request, and the lack of complete response to Request 8.

The city's explanation for the violation was that the office was “short-staffed,” a reasoning that may have affected the state office's decision to move forward.

“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,” the supplemental finding states.

It is not the city's first encounter with the office. The city has been found in violation of the APRA on three occasions, and in 2009, providing the same reasoning - that the city is understaffed - also resulted in a lawsuit. In that incident the city admitted to wrongdoing and settled with a $1,000 fine.

“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 Peter 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.