Unholy alliance? Church, ACLU, unions fighting disclosure bill

The second half of Ed Fitzpatrick’s Sunday Projo column was full of insights into a last-minute effort by State House insiders to kill or water down two high-profile transparency bills: Rep. Christopher Blazejewski’s campaign finance disclosure bill and Rep. Michael Marcello’s badly needed public records reform.

In both cases, the roadblock is Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed’s chamber. First, on Blazejewski’s disclosure bill (which she co-spsonored):

The legislation is backed by groups such as Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters, and it has produced an unlikely combination of opponents. John M. Marion, Common Cause’s executive director, said the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union joined Rhode Island Right to Life in fighting the bill, and legislators had told him the Catholic Church and organized labor lobbied against it.

But it’s worth remembering that the legislation was announced at a State House news conference involving the state’s three most powerful officials: Governor Chafee, House Speaker Gordon D. Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed. “The Senate president has been a strong supporter of this bill from the beginning, and I’m hopeful the Senate will act to pass it in the next couple of days,” Blazejewski said.

More troublingly, Governor Chafee – who came to office pledging to focus on Rhode Island’s “ABCs” (“assets, budget and corruption”) – is now joining those who want to keep Rhode Islanders in the dark about the actions taken in their names. Chafee is opposing not only Marcello’s public records bill, but even two weak Senate alternatives:

The House’s Marcello said he and the Senate’s Sheehan met Friday afternoon to try to craft a compromise that would be presented to the House and Senate in the next few days. The compromise would, for example, explicitly state that employment contracts for government employees must be disclosed, but it would not require disclosure of e-mails and other correspondence to and from elected officials in their official capacity.

In another 11th-hour development, Governor Chafee’s office contends that the legislation is too vague in establishing a balancing test to determine whether disclosing a record would be a “clearly unwarranted” invasion of privacy, Marcello said. But he said the bill’s balancing test mirrors the federal Freedom of Information Act, which has been precisely defined by years of federal case law.

Chafee’s commitment to open government is looking increasingly rhetorical – sighing that he wishes he could make the EDC’s 38 Studios meetings open but was told not to by its lawyer. Public records reform is becoming another example of such passivity. Furthermore, it’s been clear for many months that the public records bills were going to get serious attention this session – if none of these three meet the governor’s standards, where is his alternative bill? Or is he tacitly saying he’s actually fine with Rhode Island’s lousy public records law at present? Moreover, when has Chafee put real political capital behind policies to address the third leg of his “ABCs”?

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Marcello’s public records bill this afternoon, with a floor vote to follow Tuesday. But the Senate hasn’t scheduled any committee or floor votes on public records as of this writing. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up Blazejewski’s bill and Sheehan’s weaker public records bill on Monday. (Even Marcello’s bill, by the way, is losing some of its teeth – emails are no longer included, for example.)

In fairness, the Senate Judiciary Committee already has other important business on its plate for Monday – such as awarding court magistrate gigs to former state Sen. Chuck Levesque (who less than three months ago came to the rescue of Paiva Weed’s deputy Dominick Ruggerio when he was arrested for DUI) and John Flynn (legal counsel to Speaker Fox and former steward of West Warwick’s pension fund).

• Related: RI Senate fast-tracks public records bill you’ve never heard of (June 10)

(photo: Brown University)

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