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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Where Does All The Money Go?

"Taxpayer-funded political spin does not come cheap. Some 53 “public relations professionals” are on the public payroll in Rhode Island this year, earning salaries totaling $4.3 million, according to an investigation by Providence Journal Staff Writer Katherine Gregg (Political Scene, Nov. 22). "

Providence Journal Editorial Nov. 30, 2015

Did you see the Editorial in Monday's Pro Jo? Have you read the paper's "Political Scene" column these past two weeks? Katherine Gregg did an excellent two-part series on how much is spent by RI state government and agencies on public relations? According to Gregg
"Rhode Island taxpayers paid upward of $6,234,093 last year to private companies that do 'communications and marketing' for state government in Rhode Island. The 'quasi-public(s)' paid another $617,555 to consultants, and expect to pay $987,216 for salaries for their in-house public-relations staff."

If you haven't read the two articles, here are the links to "Political Scene" http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20151122/NEWS/151129764

Gregg reporting was possible because , according to the ProJo, "On a positive note, public officials were helpful recently in getting information to Ms. Gregg about the cost [of public relations] to taxpayers of P.R. flacks."

Where does all the money go in Rhode Island? Read Gregg's articles and you will learn where more than $6 million goes.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Calling on the RI Bar to Accommodate Breastfeeding Women
Taking the bar examination in Rhode Island this February?  If you are a lactating woman, don’t expect to receive any special treatment from the RI Bar. As the results of a survey (https://www.aclu.org/map/breastfeeding-policies-during-bar-exam-state) conducted by the  ACLU and Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Rhode Island rates a D- for it efforts in  accommodating women who are breastfeeding during the time that the bar exam is offered.

The ACLU notes that the “report   card findings highlight the widespread barriers that women face in pursuit of their legal careers. State boards must acknowledge that their outdated policies contribute to this problem and must take an active role in eliminating these barriers. Women should not be forced to make a decision between their families and their careers.”

The League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, ACLU of Rhode Island,  Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, Rhode Island NOW, and Rhode Island Women’s Bar Association sent a letter to David Wollin, Chair of the Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners, on November 16, noting that every other New England state does make appropriate accommodations, and “we strongly believe there is no reason for this to be delayed any longer. We therefore request the Board to take up this matter expeditiously and adopt a policy designed to meaningfully accommodate breastfeeding applicants in time for the next Bar exam.”

The full text of the letter sent to David Wollin of the RI Board of Bar Examiners appears below.

Letter to David A. Wollin
November 16, 2015


David A. Wollin, Esquire, Chair
Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners
Licht Judicial Complex
250 Benefit St. Providence, RI 02903

Dear Chair Wollin:

We write as a follow-up to our letters dated July 20, August 4, and October 1, 2015, and your latest letter of October 21, regarding accommodations for candidates who are nursing during the bar exam.

Your most recent letter to us advised that the Board was “was continuing to review and consider its policies concerning breastfeeding by bar examinees” and that we would be provided a substantive response “once the consideration of the matter by the Board and the Court is completed.”

We certainly appreciate the Board’s desire to carefully consider this issue and “get it right.” However, we note that December 1st is the cut-off date for applying to sit for the next Bar examination (taking place in February), and is also the cut-off date for any person needing special accommodations under the ADA to seek them. We assume the same deadline would be in place for other requested accommodations. Even if there is only a slim possibility that an applicant needing breastfeeding accommodations will be applying for the upcoming exam, we believe it is critical that this issue be addressed before another exam period goes by.

In calling for prompt action at this point, we note that it has been over three months since this issue was first raised with the Board. In addition, while they may vary in the details, every other state in New England has some type of breastfeeding accommodation policy in place. As we have previously noted, many other states across the country also have strong policies to accommodate breastfeeding women, and we have provided the Board with ready-made model language to consider.

Under the circumstances, we strongly believe there is no reason for this to be delayed any longer. We therefore request the Board to take up this matter expeditiously and adopt a policy designed to meaningfully accommodate breastfeeding applicants in time for the next Bar exam.

We thank you again for your consideration of this matter, and are hopeful for a positive response. We remain available to talk in more detail about this with you and members of the Board. In light of the time constraints referenced here, we look forward to hearing back from you soon.


Steven Brown, Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island
128 Dorrance Street, Suite 220 – Providence, RI  02903 sbrown@riaclu.org

Jane W. Koster, President
League of Women Voters of Rhode Island
172 Taunton Avenue, Suite 8 - East Providence, RI 02914 state@lwvri.org

Susan Yolen, Vice President for Policy and Advocacy
Planned Parenthood of Southern New England
111 Point Street – Providence, RI 02903

Jenn Steinfeld, Executive Director
Women’s Fund of Rhode Island
One Union Station - Providence, Rhode Island 02903 jsteinfeld@wfri.org

Shandi Hanna, President
Rhode Island NOW
PO Box 8413 - Warwick, RI  02888 shanna@rinow.org

Board Members
Rhode Island Women’s Bar Association
10 Weybosset Street, #800 - Providence, RI 02903 riwomensbar@gmail.com

cc:            Nancy Mahoney
Galen Sherwin, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The League Joins with other Groups to Voice Concerns about Transparency
You may have read the League's Facebook notifications or stories in local media about how the League and four other good government groups who are part of ACCESS/RI sent a letter to Governor Raimondo. noting what they saw as a "disturbingly inadequate pattern" regarding requests for governments. Following receipt of the letter the League and the other members of the coalition-- RI ACLU, the RI Press Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition--met with members of the governor's staff.
You can read more about the issue as reported on RIPR (http://ripr.org/post/raimondo-staff-meet-open-government-groups-transparency-concerns).

Here is the text of the letter:

October 6, 2015


The Hon. Gina Raimondo
Governor State House Providence, RI  02903

Dear Governor Raimondo:

In the course of the past month, our organizations have witnessed a series of troubling responses from your Administration to Access to Public Records (APRA) requests filed by journalists, public interest organizations, and individuals on extremely important matters of public  concern.  We  find  deeply  alarming  this  seeming  pattern  of  disinterest  among  state executive agencies in promoting the public’s right to know.

As a result, we are calling upon your office to issue clear and strong guidance to the executive departments under your command about the need to promote transparency in responding to APRA requests. In that regard, we would urge that you consider, among other things, the issuance of an executive order emphasizing the need for expeditious responses to APRA requests and calling upon executive agencies to adopt a strong presumption in favor of disclosure in addressing requests for public information.

We briefly summarize below three publicized incidents of questionable APRA responses that have come to our attention in the past month. From our perspective, none of them occupies a “shade of gray” in interpreting APRA. Rather, precisely because they are so clear-cut, they warrant decisive action on your part in order to address the lackadaisical interest in a strong APRA that the responses embody.

1. On September 8th, Kathy Gregg from the Providence Journal reported on an APRA request she had filed with the Department of Transportation for records related to your office’s much-discussed proposal to establish truck tolls on Rhode Island highways. Her story documents a number of shortcomings by DOT: incomplete responses to her request for records; failing to properly request an extension of time to fulfill the records request; taking the maximum possible amount of time – a full 30 business days – to respond to the request without good cause for doing so;  and  denying  records  without  either  specifying  what  documents  had  been  withheld  or affirming that they contained no reasonably segregable information, as the law requires.

2. Your decision to hire former Rep. Donald Lally to an executive office position has also led to disconcerting responses to APRA requests for information about it. For instance, the South County Independent newspaper sought copies of “any correspondence and emails related to his

hiring and employment.” Your legal counsel responded that no records at all were publicly available, claiming that the APRA exemptions for documents protected by “attorney-client privilege” and records that constitute “preliminary draft” or “working papers” left nothing to disseminate. This blanket denial of records is untenable on its face.

Even assuming certain documents might fall into these two exemption categories – e.g., legal research you asked to be conducted on whether the “revolving door” law applied – a decision to hire Rep. Lally and a decision to transfer his hiring were made. There is nothing preliminary (and certainly nothing attorney-client related) about that. Further, even if some aspects of those documents relating to the hiring and transfer were exempt, APRA requires the release of all “reasonably segregable” information, yet this was clearly ignored as well.

Interestingly, Ms. Andreozzi did not cite APRA’s so-called personnel exemption in denying access to the records, perhaps since that exemption would have required a balancing of private  and public  interests  in  deciding whether  records  should  be  released.  In  any  event, whatever records might legitimately be exempt, a claim that all documents related to this hiring are confidential simply cannot withstand scrutiny under any fair reading of APRA.

3. Finally, recent news reports describe how the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) refused to release to WPRI-TV and the Ocean State Current a copy of an application the agency filed with the federal government, seeking additional funding for the state’s Unified Health Infrastructure Project. Instead, EOHHS counsel responded that the document (along with related records) was exempt as a “preliminary draft,” claiming that the “proposal” was “still in development as part of the budget development process.” But the application itself that was filed with the federal government is clearly not “in development” or a “working paper.” It is a final document in any and every meaningful sense of the word. Under EOHHS’s interpretation of the “preliminary draft” exemption, one could argue that your annual budget proposal submitted to the Legislature could be withheld from disclosure until it had been approved by the General Assembly.

Before closing, we think it is also worth mentioning an incident described just yesterday in the Providence Journal, indicating how your administration denied a request to release the time sheet records of Department of BHDDH director Maria Montanaro. Unlike the three other incidents mentioned in this letter in which the APRA violations are clear, we acknowledge that these particular records may or may not be subject to required disclosure under the law. But there is no question that your office, like former Governor Chafee’s, has the authority to release them if it chose to. When viewed in the context of the other APRA disputes we have summarized, it is distressing, to say the least, that your office has back-pedaled from a conclusion made by the previous Governor that these records were worthy of disclosure.

This pattern of disturbingly inadequate APRA responses, all made within a short period of time by executive agencies on truly critical matters of public import, is cause for great concern. On numerous occasions, you have expressed the strong need to promote transparency

and accountability in government, but these recent incidents call that pledge into question. We therefore urge you to demonstrate your commitment to transparency by issuing an executive order that emphasizes your Administration’s commitment to open government. At a minimum, we believe it should be calling on executive branch agencies to respond to APRA requests promptly and to err on the side of disclosure rather than secrecy in considering requests for records, and providing for the adoption of additional guidelines on training and responsiveness that will better promote public accountability.

We would be happy to discuss in more detail with you possible affirmative efforts that your Administration can implement to promote APRA compliance. Thank you in advance for your attention to this request, and we look forward to hearing back from you.


Linda Lotridge Levin, President
c/o 282 Doyle Avenue – Providence, RI 02906

Steven Brown, Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island
128 Dorrance Street, Suite 220 – Providence, RI 02903

Paul Spetrini, President
Rhode Island Press Association
c/o Newport Daily News – 101 Malbone Road – Newport, RI 02840

Justin Silverman, Executive Director
New England First Amendment Coalition
111 Milk Street – Westborough, MA 01581

Jane W.Koster, President
League of Women Voters of Rhode Island
172 Taunton Avenue, Suite 8 – East Providence, RI 02914

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Call To Action: Strengthen RI's Ethics Commission
Did you read the editorial in the April 23 edition of the Providence Journal (see our posting below)?  I hope you did. The ProJo editors concluded that “Citizens should urge their representatives to support reform. Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers should be put to the voters of Rhode Island.” This editorial was just one of many requests calling for the public to take action on the important issue of ethics in politics in Rhode Island.

The League of Women Voters agrees that the Ethics Commission must once again have oversight and jurisdiction over the General Assembly.  At this time our legislators are policing themselves. Since 2009 when the state courts weakened the Commission, the League of Women Voters of RI has testified on the necessity of passing legislation that would allow Rhode Island voters to decide this Issue.  

Representative Marcello’s House Resolution No. 5374 and Senator O’Neill’s Senate Resolution No. 56 are being considered at this moment on Smith Hill.  The League’s Advocacy team has given written and oral testimony in support of both bills.   If the legislation passes, voters will decide whether or not to amend the RI Constitution, restoring the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over the General Assembly.

There are other bills that have been introduced, but the League feels these bills are the strongest.  Why? Senate No. 56 and House No. 5374 include jurisdiction during  “speech in debate” when representatives are on the floor debating or advocating for a bill.  If there appears to be a conflict of interest the Ethics Commission would be able to examine and investigate and rule on the legislator’s action. Other bills being considered would greatly reduce the power of the Ethics Commission.  These bills would allow legislators to seek a jury trial in court completely ignoring the Commission’s findings and decision.   The bills we oppose would also allow thousands of public officials to go beyond administrative oversight and seek a decision in the courts, thereby causing possible lengthy trials and great costs to the public.  Separation of powers is also weakened when one branch of government (the court) oversees another (the legislature), which could be problematic in Rhode Island where many lawmakers move from the legislature into positions in the courts as judges and magistrates.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was quoted in a Providence Journal article in early March saying that to gain the public’s trust he will “make sure that the House serves the interests of the public.  Each and every day that I am here, we will serve the public’s interest and we will earn the public’s trust.”  He was also quoted in Thursday’s editorial as saying that  “We pass bills that are in the citizen’s best interest.”    The public needs assurance that this happens.  Let’s “make sure,” as Speaker Mattiello says, that the legislature will indeed serve the public interest with proper oversight.

What can you do to have this happen?  Contact your representatives and senators and ask them to support these two bills.  If they do not support these two bills, ask why.  These are the two bills that will actually restore the full jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission over our legislators and hold them responsible to the public.

And please forward this message to your friends and family members in RI and go to the LWVRI  Facebook page and share the League’s posting about this action.

Be in League!  Take Action Now.

Jane Koster
President, LWVRI

The April 23 editorial in the Providence Journal outlines the case for giving RI voters the right to strengthen the state's Ethics Commission.

April 23. 2015 2:01AM

Editorial: For ethics oversight

Like America’s founders, those who framed Rhode Island’s Constitution recognized that there can be a danger of prosecution of politicians for purely political reasons. When the weight of government power is brought to bear against lawmakers because of their political views, free speech comes under attack, and it becomes impossible to sustain a system of self-government. And so the Constitution offers lawmakers some protection through a "speech-in-debate" clause.
But the important principle of sustaining free speech and representative government should not offer blanket protection to lawmakers to engage in abuse of public power to advance their personal or financial interests.
In short, a reasonable balance must be struck. Clearly, the balance in Rhode Island has been shifted away from enforcement of ethical standards toward freedom to potentially misuse public power. Leaders in the General Assembly should rectify that, rather than insist they are above such restraints.
Citizens in general, and good-government groups such as Common Cause Rhode Island and Operation Clean Government in particular, are trying again this year to restore Ethics Commission jurisdiction over actions by the state’s lawmakers. In a 2009 ruling involving dubious activities by former Senate President William Irons, the state Supreme Court found that the state Constitution protected lawmakers from Ethics Commission oversight. It based its ruling on the "speech-in-debate" clause, which protects lawmakers from prosecution based on acts that include proposing and voting on legislation.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court suggested the voters could always, in effect, overturn its decision. "If the citizens of Rhode Island wish to empower the Ethics Commission to investigate and prosecute legislators with respect to their legislative actions, notwithstanding the operation of the speech in debate clause, they most certainly have the power to do so," the majority wrote.
Bills by Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Scituate, and Sen. Edward O'Neill, I-Lincoln, would do just that: put a constitutional amendment before voters, asking if they want the commission to have jurisdiction over state lawmakers. We have no doubt it would pass overwhelmingly.
Ethical restraints are important for many reasons. They give pause to lawmakers who might otherwise misuse public power. John Marion of Common Cause notes that recusals by House members dropped from more than 100 in 2007 to roughly 30 in 2013 -- evidence, as he put it, that “we've taken the cop off the beat.”
Strong ethics rules also send a signal to the world outside that Rhode Island has moved beyond its celebrated past of political corruption, something crucial to attracting entrepreneurs and boosting its economy. Such a signal would be welcome in the wake of the guilty plea of former House Speaker Gordon Fox to bribery, wire fraud and other crimes.
Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Fox’s successor, argues that the Fox case has no bearing on the issue of Ethics Commission oversight since the former speaker faced criminal prosecution. “An ethics fine would have added no value to that situation whatsoever," Mr. Mattiello said. He also argued that financial interests do not sway members. "We pass bills that are in the citizens' best interest," he said.
We understand his desire to defend the integrity of fellow House members and shield those who do not want to fall under ethics restrictions, but we have less trust in the honor system. Ethics Commission oversight would advance the public’s interest and improve Rhode Island’s economic prospects, something the speaker has made clear is important to him.
Citizens should urge their representatives to support reform. Ethics Commission oversight of lawmakers should be put to the voters of Rhode Island.