PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island called Thursday for the state attorney general to more strictly enforce public records laws, saying a review found the office has rarely taken legal action against violators, even in what it called the most blatant cases.
In a 22-page report, the ACLU said the attorney general’s office filed six lawsuits against public bodies between 1999 and June 2012 after finding violations to the Access to Public Records Act, or what amounts to less than 4 percent of the time.
The town of North Providence was determined in January 2012 to have violated the law six times over a two-year period. Still, the attorney general’s office did not deem the sixth violation ‘‘knowing and willful,’’ meaning no penalties were sought under the law, according to the report.
The report analyzed enforcement of the act before the General Assembly strengthened portions of it last year, including increasing fines for those who willfully break the law.
Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, largely dismissed the report’s findings, saying Kilmartin supported revisions to the law and has sought to ensure public officials know how to comply with it.
‘‘The attorney general is neither concerned nor troubled by the myopic, one-sided view of the ACLU,’’ she said in a statement. ‘‘Rather than selectively criticize the office, the ACLU should be applauding the office for its past efforts, the fact that all opinions are available to the public, the proactive measures the office takes in educating and training public officials on how to comply with the APRA’’ and the Open Meetings Act.
The open government unit within the attorney general’s office investigates complaints against public bodies in Rhode Island.
The ACLU report acknowledged that the ‘‘poor record’’ of enforcement was in part because of limitations of the law before the amendments were made, but also said the attorney general’s office ‘‘appears willing to accept excuses by public agencies that should not be excusable.’’
Violations of the least complicated parts of the law — including responding to public records requests within the required period — also occurred repeatedly, the report said.
‘‘The absence of strong enforcement can only encourage a lackadaisical attitude among public bodies that compliance with APRA simply need not be a priority,’’ the report said.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a government watchdog group that has been a leading advocate for public records access, said he was surprised to learn from the report how infrequently the attorney general’s office had used its power to take public bodies to court.
‘‘It was disconcerting to see what the ACLU found were repeated violations that weren’t deemed significant enough for the AG to prosecute,’’ he said.
But he said Kilmartin deserves credit for supporting changes to the law.
‘‘Hopefully with the new law, we'll also see from his office renewed enthusiasm for enforcement,’’ Marion said.