- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - When Rhode Island lawmakers strengthened the state’s open records law four years ago, they blocked a bid to include in the sweeping changes a provision to make their own emails public.

Elected officials are still allowed to disclose their correspondence voluntarily, but Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and three of the state’s top four legislators all denied a recent request by The Associated Press for a week’s worth of emails.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Democratic Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and Republican Minority Leader Brian Newberry sent a joint letter saying they are “conscious of the chilling effect that voluntary disclosure of such emails might have on constituents if they knew their communications with their elected officials were not held in confidence.”

A lawyer for Raimondo simply noted in her denial that the records are not deemed public.

Open government advocates say the responses show why lawmakers need another round of updates to the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act, which was first passed in 1979 and amended in 2012. A bill introduced by state Sen. Stephen Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat, would make an elected official’s emails public unless they “have no demonstrable connection to the exercise of official functions or influence.”

“The emails of our elected leaders are important documents that inform citizens what our government is doing in our names,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island and a backer of Archambault’s bill.

Only Republican Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere provided the AP with a printout of emails that included routine commentary from his constituents and a school superintendent about pending legislation. Algiere said he excluded confidential emails, such as those disclosing medical conditions.

“Our public records law allows significant discretion in determining what can be withheld, and it’s disappointing so many of our leaders used that latitude to withhold all their emails,” Marion said. “Kudos to Minority Leader Algiere for demonstrating that the reflex to shield information from the public isn’t true of all elected leaders.”

Algiere also provided a copy of his public calendar at the AP’s request. So did Mattiello, Paiva Weed and Raimondo. The schedules - some more detailed than others - included meetings with lobbyists, mayors, fellow lawmakers and some fundraising events.

Newberry denied the calendar request. He said he doesn’t keep an official schedule because he’s a “part-time legislator with a busy law practice.”

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