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
February 21, 2023
Henry V. Boezi III, Esq.
David R. Petrarca, Jr., Esq.
Re: Patrie v. North Scituate Fire Department
Dear Mr. Patrie, Attorney Boezi and Attorney Petrarca:
The investigation into the Access to Public Records Act (“APRA”) complaint filed by Mr. John Patrie (“Complainant”) against the North Scituate Fire Department (“Department”) is complete. For the reasons set forth herein, we find that the Department violated the APRA.
The Complainant submitted a Complaint to this Office alleging that he “never received a response to [his] APRA request sent by certified mail to the [Department] on August 9, 2022.” Appended to his Complaint was the Complainant’s initial request to the Department. This request sought “any communications, notifications, dispatch logs, appointments, letters, [and] emails to/from” various Scituate entities, including Fire Department officials, concerning the dispatching of “any Scituate Fire Department Member or … Apparatus” to “1520 Chopmist Hill Road” in Scituate on February 28, 2021. He also sought a number of other documents, such as “activity logs,” “notes,” and “reports” relative to the use of fire apparatus and personnel on this date. Finally, the Complainant included his certified mailing receipt and electronic verification documentation, evidencing delivery of his request.
Attorney David R. Petrarca, Jr., Esq., Assistant Solicitor for the Town of Scituate, submitted a Response on behalf of the Department. The Department does not challenge that it is a public body subject to the APRA. It concedes that it “did not provide a written response to the Complainant on or before [the due date], with either the responsive record or an indication that more time was needed to research the Request,” and notes that “it appears that [the Department] technically violated the APRA.” Nevertheless, the Department states that any violation was not “willful, knowing or reckless.” In support of this contention, the Department provided an affidavit of Adam Hebert, Chief of the Department.
Attorney Henry V. Boezi, III submitted a Rebuttal as counsel for the Complainant. Attorney Boezi challenges the Department’s argument that it committed a mere “Technical Violation” of the APRA and contends that the Department failed to demonstrate “Good Cause” for its failure to timely respond. He argues that the Complainant “has and reserves his right to file an action in Superior Court.”
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.
Pursuant to the APRA, a public body has ten (10) business days to respond in some capacity to a records request, whether by producing responsive documents, denying the request with reason(s), or extending the period necessary to comply. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 38-2-3(e), 38-2-7. A public body may extend the time to respond to an APRA request by an additional twenty (20) business days “if it can demonstrate that the voluminous nature of the request, the number of requests for records pending, or the difficulty in searching for and retrieving or copying the requested records, is such that additional time is necessary to avoid imposing an undue burden on the public body.” Id.
Here, it is undisputed that the Department received the Complainant’s APRA request on August 11, 2022. It is also undisputed that the Department “did not provide a written response to the Complainant on or before August 25th, 2022 with either the responsive record or an indication that more time was needed to research the Request.” The Department did not dispute that its response was untimely, nor did it contend that it failed to receive the initial APRA request or that Complainant did not comply with its procedures for submitting APRA requests. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-3(d) (requiring public bodies to establish written procedures regarding access to public records). Accordingly, we conclude that the Department violated the APRA when it failed to respond to Complainant’s request within the statutory time period. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-7.
Upon a finding of an APRA violation, the Attorney General may file a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of the Complainant requesting “injunctive or declaratory relief.” See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8(b). A court “shall impose a civil fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000) against a public body. . . found to have committed a knowing and willful violation of this chapter, and a civil fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) against a public body found to have recklessly violated this chapter.” See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-9(d).
We conclude that insufficient evidence exists to find a willful and knowing, or alternatively reckless, violation. While we are concerned that the Department allowed its “other day-to-day duties” to impact its compliance with the APRA, we have not found any prior, similar violations involving the Department, nor does the Complainant bring any such prior violations to our attention. Additionally, the Department has provided a sworn statement by Chief Hebert stating that the Department’s violation was “unintentional” and that he has “recommended to the management of [the Department] that we get further training on the APRA and appropriate procedures and policies to adopt to prevent any further issues with regard to public records requests.” We direct the Department and its staff members responsible for processing APRA requests to undergo training on the Access to Public Records Act and certify to this Office that such training has occurred. Said training must be completed within thirty (30) days of the date of this finding. This requirement may be satisfied by watching the Attorney General’s Open Government Summit video from June 3, 2022, which is available for viewing on the Office of Attorney General website.
We also do not find injunctive relief appropriate since the undisputed record indicates that the Complainant is in possession of the requested document. Although the record does not demonstrate that the document was ever provided to the Complainant by the Department outside of the complaint process, the Department appended the record to its Response and the Complainant did not dispute possession of the same in rebuttal or allege any other deficiency related to the production.
This finding serves as notice that the conduct discussed herein violates the APRA and may serve as evidence of a willful and knowing, or reckless, violation in any similar future situation. Although the Complainant, in rebuttal, challenges that the Department’s actions were “unintentional,” the Complainant rightly states that he has “the right to file an action in Superior Court.” Although the Attorney General will not file suit in this matter, nothing within the APRA prohibits the Complainant from instituting an action for injunctive or declaratory relief in Superior Court. 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
/s/ Adam D. Roach
Adam D. Roach
Special Assistant Attorney General
 Attorney Petrarca noted that he was “authorized on a limited-scope” to represent the Department.
 The Department states that it is “a ‘public body’ under the APRA, but not the Open Meetings Act.” We need not resolve this issue in this finding.
 Chief Hebert notes that as to the request in question, the Department “located a singular [responsive] record.” The Complainant does not challenge this representation.