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
August 21, 2023
Mr. Patrick Anderson
Mr. Tim White
Peter D. Ruggiero, Esquire
Re: Anderson v. Town of Jamestown
White v. Town of Jamestown
Dear Mr. Anderson, Mr. White, and Attorney Ruggerio:
We have completed our investigation into the Access to Public Records Act (“APRA”) Complaints filed by Mr. Patrick Anderson and Mr. Tim White (“Complainants”) against the Town of Jamestown (“Town”). Because these Complaints largely pertain to the same issues, we have consolidated them. For the reasons set forth herein, we find that the Town violated the APRA.
The Complainants assert that the Town violated the APRA by redacting primary election nomination papers to obscure the street addresses and signatures of signatories. The Complainants assert that the information redacted by the Town is not exempted from public disclosure by the APRA.
The record reveals that on July 17, 2023, Complainant White requested from the Town:
“[T]he meeting packet from this morning’s canvasser’s meeting[.]”
Similarly, the following day, Complainant Anderson submitted an APRA request to the Town requesting:
“[A] digital copy of the 1st Congressional District nomination signatures submitted to Jamestown canvassers by the Sabina Matos campaign[.]”
In response to the Complainants’ respective requests, the Town provided the Complainants with records, which included a nomination paper submitted by the Sabina Matos campaign. The names of the signatories and the street on which they live were disclosed. The nomination paper was redacted to not disclose the street address number and signatures of signatories. The Town informed the Complainants that such redactions were made in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(I)(b). The Town also gave the Complainants the option to view an unredacted copy of the nomination paper without the ability to make a copy or take a picture.
In his Complaint, Complainant Anderson asserted that the information the Town redacted was not exempt under R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(A)(I)(b) because “[n]omination papers are not personnel records, not deemed confidential under federal or state law and do not constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Complainant White further asserted that the public has a right to inspect and review nomination papers, which the Town “choke[d]” off by “taking a magic marker to the document.” He asserted that this public interest was especially important given the allegations that there were improper or fraudulent signatures on the nomination paper in question.
In response, the Town asserted that it did not violate the APRA because it provided the opportunity to inspect the responsive documents without any redactions and the redactions made were appropriate. The Town asserted that the street address numbers and signatures implicate the privacy interests of the signatories and could potentially lead to identity theft.
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.
Under the APRA, all records maintained by public bodies are subject to public disclosure unless the document falls within one of the twenty-seven enumerated exceptions. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)-(AA).
Here, the Town redacted information in the responsive documents, citing to the exemption in R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b). The redacted information consisted of street address numbers and signatures of signatories of the nomination paper in question.
The exemption invoked by the Town shields personal individually identifiable records from disclosure when such disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b). There is not a clear bright line rule on whether street addresses and signatures are per se exempt from disclosure under R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b). Rather, such a determination is fact and context dependent. See Szerlag v. Town of East Greenwich, PR 18-36 (noting that “signatures of government officials are not per se public or private, but largely fact and context dependent” and determining signature was exempt in situation where the asserted public interest pertained to identifying the person behind the signature, not the signature itself).
As recognized by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the APRA contemplates a “balancing test” whereby the “public interest” in disclosure is weighed against any “privacy interest.” See Direct Action for Rights and Equality v. Gannon, 713 A.2d 218 (R.I. 1998). Consequently, we must consider the “public interest” versus the “privacy interest” to determine whether the disclosure of the redacted information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy[.]” R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b).
Turning first to the privacy interests of the nomination paper signatories, the United States Supreme Court has held that the “central purpose” of the Freedom of Information Act, and by extension the APRA, “is to ensure that the Government’s activities be opened to the sharp eye of public scrutiny, not that information about private citizens that happens to be in the warehouse of the Government be so disclosed.” United States Dept. of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 744 (1989).
Here, the information at issue is not “information about private citizens that happens to be in the warehouse of the Government.” Id. (emphasis added). Rather, at issue is information that members of the public voluntarily provided by nominating a candidate for political office. Providing signatures on nomination papers is necessary to show “a significant modicum of support before” a candidate’s name is placed on the ballot. See Jenness v. Fortson, 403 U.S. 431, 442 (1971). Nomination paper signatures establish that a political candidate has “demonstrable support among the voting public.” Goldstein v. Sec’y of Commonwealth, 484 Mass. 516, 142 N.E.3d 560, 570 (2020) (quoting Barr v. Galvin, 626 F. 3d 99, 111 (1st Cir. 2010), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 929 (2011)). Indeed, the reforms of the old party system that included the nomination signature process gave individual members of a political party “a greater voice in the selection of party candidates.” Malinou v. Bd. of Elections, 271 A.2d 798, 804 (R.I. 1970). And the collection of such information typically occurs in public places, such as the entrance of supermarkets and town centers. See Goldstein, 142 N.E.3d at 570; Glovsky v. Roche Bros. Supermkts., Inc., 469 Mass. 752, 762, 17 N.E.3d 1026 (2014) (recognizing the necessity for candidates to solicit nominating signatures outside entrance to supermarkets); Batchelder v. Allied Stores Int’l, Inc., 388 Mass. 83, 92, 445 N.E.2d 590 (1983) (“a person needing signatures for ballot access requires personal contact with voters”).
Moreover, the public policy of the State of Rhode Island demonstrates a clear preference for disclosure of certain voter information, including street addresses and signatures, in at least certain contexts. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 17-9.1-6, 15. Rhode Island General Laws § 17-9.1-15 instructs that voter registration cards, which contain inter alia voter street addresses and signatures, “shall be public records open to public inspection and copying at all reasonable times.” See R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-9.1-6. The statutory requirement that this voter information be open to public inspection and copying via voter registration cards diminishes the individual privacy interests in keeping this information private in the instant matter. We also note that the Town did not cite any specific state or federal law that shields voter information on nomination papers from disclosure. Additionally, the fact that the Town offered the option to inspect unredacted copies of the records in question further evidences that the records do not contain highly sensitive non-public information. We also note the representation of Complainant Anderson that the Secretary of State’s Office has made unredacted digital copies of nomination signature pages for all 1st District special election candidates available to the public and press — including those papers submitted by the town of Jamestown, with the exception of the nomination paper at issue in this case because it was not passed on to the Secretary of State’s Office. As such, although this is not dispositive, there is evidence in the record that the type of record at issue in this case is often treated as a public record in unredacted form.
This policy preference for the disclosure of certain voter information does have limits. As this Office found in The Providence Journal v. Rhode Island Secretary of State, PR 18-38, the birth dates of voters constituted personally identifiable information exempt from disclosure. However, of note, birth dates, unlike street addresses and signatures, are not included in the voter registration cards made public by R.I. Gen. Laws § 17-9.1-15. See RI Gen Laws § 17-9.1-6. Additionally, the APRA request at issue in The Providence Journal v. Rhode Island Secretary of State, PR 18-38, sought a mass, digitized, searchable database containing the birth dates of all 790,000 registered Rhode Island voters as opposed to this request that pertains to a particular nomination paper.
Turning to the second element of the balancing test, the public has an interest in a document that “sheds light” on how government operates. See Dept. of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 772-773 (1989). Here, Complainant White avers that the public has an interest in the redacted information on this nomination paper because it was submitted on behalf of a candidate for public office and there are currently “underlying allegations that someone or some people forged signatures on nomination papers.” This assertion is supported by the July 13, 2023 letter from the Jamestown Board of Canvassers Clerk to the Jamestown Police Department included in the documents the Town produced in response to Complainant White’s APRA request. In the letter, the Clerk details potential irregularities in the names and signatures on the nomination paper in question. Additionally, Complainant White avers that his investigative efforts have located individuals who, upon viewing nomination signature papers submitted in connection with the upcoming primary election, stated that the signature was not theirs, despite those signatures having been accepted by the local board of canvassers in those towns. He asserts that this suggests that the system set up to check signatures statewide is flawed and more information is needed to shed light on that system.
The verification of nominating signatures is an important part of the electoral process in Rhode Island. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 17-6-2, 17-14-11. And public disclosure “promotes transparency and accountability… related to the important interest of preserving the integrity of the electoral process.” See John Doe No. 1 v. Reed, 561 U.S. 186, 199 (2010). Here, the Complainants’ requests were made in the context of allegations that irregularities existed in the names and signatures on the nomination paper at issue. The public release of the information implicated by this narrowly tailored request can reasonably be expected to shed light on this important public interest.
We note the Town’s asserted concern that disclosure of the redacted information could risk identity theft or chill voter participation in the electoral process. We appreciate these concerns, but in the specific circumstances of this case find that the balancing test requires disclosure. It would be within the Legislature’s purview to take steps to increase safeguards for sensitive voter personal information that may be susceptible to identity theft in a manner that is consistent with both privacy interests and the public interest in the electoral process.
We also address one additional issue. Complainant White’s request was framed more broadly than Complainant Anderson’s request. In addition to the redactions discussed above, Complainant White also takes issue with redactions made to a July 13, 2023 letter from the Town Board of Canvassers to a Jamestown Police Department detective that was responsive to his request. The letter described certain information related to some of the names listed on the nomination paper that led the Town to suspect impropriety. The Town acknowledges that certain redactions were inadvertently made to this document due to the pressing demands of receiving multiple requests related to the nomination paper and the Town subsequently re-produced the letter to Complainant White with certain redactions removed. Complainant White, however, still takes issue with the remaining redactions of the names of the private individuals mentioned in the letter, as well as the redaction of one address. The only exemption invoked by the Town for redaction of this document is the privacy balancing test pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b). We find the nature of these redactions to be different from the redactions on the nomination paper. Whereas there is a lower privacy and higher public interest in a nomination paper for all the reasons discussed above, the letter is in a different posture. Private individuals have a privacy interest in their names not being disclosed in connection with a potential police investigation. Additionally, we do not perceive a substantial public interest in these redacted names. As noted above, public interest under the APRA encompasses records that shed light on governmental conduct. The redacted version of the letter already sheds light on government conduct by disclosing the actions of the Town in connection with the nomination paper. Based on the record before us in this particular case, revealing the names of the individuals referenced in the letter would not shed meaningful additional light on governmental conduct. As such, we determine it was permissible for the Town to redact the names and street address in the letter.
Upon a finding of an APRA violation, the Attorney General may file a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of the Complainants, requesting “injunctive or declaratory relief.” See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8(b). Additionally, 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).
Although seeking injunctive relief may be appropriate, we prefer to allow the Town an opportunity to comply with this finding. Within two (2) business days of the issuance of this finding, the Town should provide the unredacted nomination paper in question to the Complainants and should certify to this Office that it has done so.
We do not find that the violation was willful and knowing or reckless. Although we have determined that the APRA requires full disclosure of the redacted nomination paper, the record indicates that the Town applied the balancing test in good faith and, as noted above, there are no clear bright lines rules regarding the information that was redacted in this case. Complainant White’s rebuttal likewise acknowledges that the Town acted in good faith.
Although this Office will not file suit at this time, 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 will keep this file open pending compliance with this Office’s finding.
We thank you for your interest in keeping government open and accountable to the public.
PETER F. NERONHA
By: /s/ Patrick Reynolds
Special Assistant Attorney General
 Complainant White additionally asserts that the Town improperly initially “punted” his request to the police department. The Town asserts that it timely responded to the Complainant’s APRA request and simply passed along a press release from the police department to provide additional information, but did not direct the Complainant to submit nor resubmit his request to the Jamestown Police Department nor any other agency. Especially where the record indicates that the Town timely responded to the Complainant’s APRA request, we find insufficient evidence to support this allegation and do not find a violation regarding this issue.
 The Town cites to caselaw and findings concluding there is an individual privacy interest in preventing the public release of signatures, and other personal information such as names and addresses, of public employees and job applicants. See Cox v. Bureau of Prisons, No. 1:20-cv-0887-RCL, 2021 WL 4355409 (D.D.C. Sept. 24, 2021); Holland v. C.I.A., Civ. A. No. 92-1233, 1992 WL 233820 (D.D.C. Aug. 31, 1992); DeAscentis v. Jamestown, PR 14-04. However, the Town does not cite caselaw directly on point involving nomination papers or the nature of voters’ signatures and street addresses.
 We reference FOIA because the Rhode Island Supreme Court has made clear that “[b]ecause APRA generally mirrors the Freedom of Information Act * * * we find federal case law helpful in interpreting our open record law.” Pawtucket Teachers Alliance v. Brady, 556 A.2d 556, 558 n.3 (R.I. 1989).
 To the extent there is a question about whether certain of the signatures were forged, then it does not appear that individuals would have any privacy interest in a signature that is not theirs.
 To the extent the Town suggests it satisfied the APRA by offering the Complainants the opportunity to inspect the records in person but not copy them, we reject that argument as the APRA provides that “[a]t the election of the person or entity requesting the public records, the public body shall provide copies of the public records electronically, by facsimile, or by mail in accordance with the requesting person or entity’s choice, unless complying with that preference would be unduly burdensome due to the volume of records requested or the costs that would be incurred.” R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-3(k).
 The record indicates that none of the signatures in question in this case were accepted by the local board of canvassers, which somewhat lessens this particular public interest argument, at least in connection with the specific nomination paper at issue in this case.