State of Rhode Island
OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
150 South Main Street- Providence, Rl 02903
(401) 274-4400 www.riag.ri.gov
Peter F. Neronha
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VIA EMAIL ONLY
January 13, 2023
Ms. Nicole Solas
Amy H. Goins, Esquire
Legal Counsel, Town of South Kingstown
Re: Solas v. Town of South Kingstown
Dear Ms. Solas and Attorney Goins:
We have completed our investigation into the Access to Public Records Act (“APRA”) Complaint filed by Ms. Nicole Solas (“Complainant”) against the Town of South Kingstown (“Town”). For the reasons set forth herein, we find that the Town did not violate the APRA.
The Complainant alleges that the Town violated the APRA by failing to respond to her APRA request made verbally on June 10, 2022. The Complainant provided an audio recording of her verbal request as part of the record. Based upon this Office’s review of the audio recording, the Complainant contacted the Town Clerk’s Office saying that she “would like to make a public records request over the phone” and that she believes “state law says that you can make it over the phone.” Complainant asked the person who answered the telephone if this person was the designated public records officer and the person identified that she was not and she wasn’t sure who the designated public records officer was, but that she would try to transfer the Complainant to Lucas Murray as the Director of Administrative Services. At this point, the Clerk’s Office staff member appears to be under the impression that the Complainant sought email addresses of senior center employees and the staff member stated that she spoke to Mr. Murray and “he has no problem giving that to you, but he has to get it together.” The Complainant provided her contact information and upon the staff member’s confirmation of the information sought, the Complainant corrected the staff employee and “dictated” the specific language of her request as “communications of employees at the South Kingstown Senior Center for the months of May and June 2022.” The Clerk’s Office staff member said she would relay the message to “the Town Clerk and to Luke.”
Legal counsel for the Town, Amy H. Goins, Esquire, submitted a substantive response on behalf of the Town, which included affidavits from Town Probate Staff Clerk, Ms. Keri Steere Bugbee, and Town Director of Administrative Services, Mr. Lucas Murray. The Town states that Ms. Bugbee was the Clerk’s Office employee Complainant spoke with on June 10 and is the Probate Staff Clerk. Ms. Bugbee attests that she is “not designated by the Town as an employee responsible for responding to Access to Public Records Act (APRA) requests and [she has] not received training in responding to such requests.” After completing the call with the Complainant, Ms. Bugbee circulated an email to Mr. Murray, the Deputy Town Clerk and the Town Clerk writing, in pertinent part:
“I took a phone call this afternoon for public information. She is looking for the following: communication of public employees at the Senior Center for the months of May & June of 2022.”
Mr. Murray attests that “it was [his] impression, after speaking with Ms. Bugbee, that the caller was informally seeking information about what records would be available for release. *** [He] was not aware that the caller had made a formal APRA request in accordance with the Town’s written procedures that would trigger statutory response deadlines. *** There was no statement or documentation attached to the e-mail [from Ms. Bugbee] that would indicate that the request was being filed under APRA in accordance with written Town procedures.”
The Town further maintains that the Complainant failed to follow the Town’s established APRA procedures - available on the Town website – when submitting her request. The Town argues that it did not have a duty to respond to the Complainant’s APRA request, which was not submitted in accordance with their procedures. The Town provided copies of its APRA procedures as written at the time the Complainant contends she submitted her request. Those procedures state the following, in pertinent part:
“Any person who wishes to request a public record should complete a ‘Request for Records Under the Access to Public Records Act’ form, which is available at the Police Department for police records, the Town Clerk’s office for all Town Council related requests, or the Town Manager’s office for all other requests. Completion of this form is not mandatory but is used to facilitate the request. In the event a requestor does not wish to complete the form, a verbal request may be made of the custodian of records.” (Emphases in original).
Accordingly, the Town maintains that it did not violate the APRA by failing to respond to the Complainant’s APRA request, which was not submitted in accordance with the Town’s APRA procedures, which requires requests for records – aside from police and council records – to be made to the Town Manager’s Office or the custodian of records.
The Complainant did not submit a rebuttal.
When we examine an APRA complaint, our authority is to determine whether a violation of the APRA has occurred. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8. In doing so, we must begin with the plain language of the APRA and relevant caselaw interpreting this statute.
The APRA states that, upon receipt of a records request, a public body is obligated to respond in some capacity within ten (10) business days, either by producing responsive documents, denying the request with reason(s), or extending the time period necessary to comply. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-3. Also, the “[f]ailure to comply with a request to inspect or copy the public record within the ten (10) business day period shall be deemed to be a denial.” R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-7(b).
The APRA mandates that “[e]ach public body shall establish written procedures regarding access to public records,” and these procedures must include “the identification of a designated public records officer or unit, how to make a public records request, and where a public record request should be made, and a copy of these procedures shall be posted on the public body’s website[.]” R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-3(d). The record in this case demonstrates that pursuant to this authority, and in accordance with the APRA, the Town promulgated and posted its APRA procedures to its website. As applied to this case where the Complainant sought records from the senior center, there is no provision in the Town’s procedures for APRA requests to be made verbally to the Town Probate Staff Clerk (or the Town Clerk’s Office) as occurred in this case.
It is undisputed that the Complainant did not submit her APRA request to the Town in accordance with its established procedures. Notably, Ms. Bugbee told the Complainant during the June 10 telephone call that she was not the Town’s designated public records officer and it appears that, at the time Ms. Bugbee initially communicated with the Director of Administrative Services, both Ms. Bugbee and Mr. Murray had a different understanding of the nature of the request (i.e., email addresses of senior center employees) than Complainant later communicated (i.e., communications of senior center employees for May and June 2022). While the Town’s failure to process this request appropriately does raise some concern, we conclude that the failure to properly respond is, at least in part, due to the Complainant seeking records outside the Town’s established APRA procedures. Pursuant to the Town’s established procedures, the Complainant should have made a written APRA request to the Town Manager or a verbal request to the custodian of the records. The Complainant satisfied neither requirement. Accordingly, we conclude that since the Complainant’s request was not made in accordance with the Town’s promulgated and posted APRA procedures, we find no violation. See Reale v. Office of the Governor, PR 21-15 (finding no violation where the Complainant did not submit his APRA request in accordance with the Governor’s Office posted procedures); Shapiro v. Town of Warren, PR 15-39 (finding no violation where the Town of Warren failed to respond to an APRA request where the request was submitted to the Town Manager instead of the Town Clerk where the Town Clerk was the Town’s designated public records officer in accordance with the Town’s established procedures); Stafford v. Rhode Island Family Court, PR 11-13 (finding no violation where the Rhode Island Family Court failed to respond to a request for public records in a timely manner since the request was not made pursuant to the Court’s established APRA procedures). Although we find no violation, the Complainant is free to submit an APRA request to the Town at any time by following the Town’s APRA procedures.
Although this Office has found no violation, nothing within the APRA prohibits an individual or entity from instituting an action for injunctive or declaratory relief in Superior Court as provided in the APRA. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8(b). Please be advised that we are closing this file as of the date of this letter.
We thank you for your interest in keeping government open and accountable to the public.
PETER F. NERONHA
By: /s/ Kayla E. O’Rourke
Kayla E. O’Rourke, Esquire
/s/ Michael W. Field
Michael W. Field, Assistant Attorney General
 The current APRA procedures for the Town can be found here: https://www.southkingstownri.com/DocumentCenter/View/8203/APRA-Procedure-.
 We cannot help but wonder if this entire complaint could have been avoided if the Complainant followed up with the Town after submitting her request to Ms. Bugbee, given that the Complainant was on notice that Ms. Bugbee was unfamiliar with the APRA and not the Town’s designated public records officer. Oftentimes, engaging in communications between the requester and the public body can avoid APRA complaints (or at least narrow the issues) and facilitate the disclosure of public documents.