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City gets slapped with open records violation

July 11, 2013

WOONSOCKET – State prosecutors have determined that the city violated a state law protecting access to public documents by taking too long to provide a lawyer with records from the Water Treatment Plant Advisory Committee.
Attorney Michael A. Kelly asked for the records on Dec. 21, 2012, and should have been supplied with them within 30 days under the Access to Public Records Act.
But Assistant Attorney General Maria R. Corvese said the city’s keeper of records, City Clerk Andrea Bicki, didn’t turn them over to Kelly until April 2. Even accounting for the fact that Bicki was on vacation when Kelly submitted the request, that’s just too long, the state prosecutor said.
“It is the responsibility of the public body to have policies and procedures in place to handle APRA requests when the designated public records officer is unavailable,” she said, adding that, “giving the city every benefit of the doubt, the city still violated the APRA...”
The city has 10 days to reply to the finding in attempts to persuade the attorney general’s office that the violation wasn’t willful, thereby avoiding civil litigation and a fine of up to $2,000. It’s unclear when the timeline kicks in, but prosecutors dated a letter explaining their findings to the city July 3 and made a public disclosure about it Wednesday on a state website.
“We are preparing a response,” said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine. “It wasn’t willful.”
Though the city clerk’s office operates as an autonomous arm of the City Council, Fontaine said he had no problem defending Bicki’s actions. At the time of the alleged violation, Fontaine said Kelly had made a series of requests for documents and that Bicki complied with all but one of them in a timely fashion in compliance with APRA.
Bicki supplied an affidavit to state prosecutors in the course of the APRA inquiry in which she described the request in question as “voluminous.” She also noted that the city is operating under the auspices of a Budget Commission, for which she regularly serves as a recording secretary, on top of her normal duties in a similar capacity for the City Council.
While she conceded there was a violation, she said, “I made a good faith effort to comply with the request,” which was ultimately satisfied.
“Ms. Bicki was doing the best she could to keep up with all of Mr. Kelly’s requests, but apparently there was one she was unable to complete on a timely basis and it resulted in a complaint being filed,” the mayor said.
Fontaine said he believes Kelly’s request had little to do with the Water Treatment Plant Advisory Committee, but the relationships between certain members of the board and Roland Michaud, who sold the city land to build the proposed $50 million water treatment plant.
Michaud is a key figure in a $3 million lawsuit Kelly has filed against the Zoning Board of Review over development rights to St. Francis House on Blackstone Street. His client in that case is Gary Fernandes, a well-known developer.
Although Michaud wasn’t on the Zoning Board when he sold the city land for the water plant, he was later appointed to the panel and continues to serve on the board. He did not take part in any voting on St. Francis House, but Kelly contends he improperly turned another member against Fernandes’ proposal for the rooming house. The suit is pending in Superior Court.

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