Governor Chafee signed a bill today improving Rhode Island's shoddy public records law. The chief accomplishment: scrapping a provision in the old law that shielded from inspection any record "identifiable to an individual" - an overly broad exemption that stifled many a citizen and journalist.
Tim White, investigative reporter for WPRI-TV, used to joke that as soon as the governor signed a bill it wasn't public record since it was "identifiable" to the chief executive.
The new law requires a balancing test in line with federal law - records are to be made public unless doing so would constitute an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." An overzealous town clerk can still block access, but this is an improvement.
Legislators who pushed the measure - particularly Representative Michael Marcello - and outside advocates, including media, civil liberties, and good government groups, deserve kudos for the change.
But advocates didn't win one crucial reform: making correspondence between elected officials, in their official capacity, public record.
It will probably be some time before there is momentum around more changes to the public record law. And if the General Assembly, at that point, looks anything like it does now, you can expect continued resistance to additional scrutiny of pols.
But if Rhode Island really wants to move to the forefront on government transparency - and Lord knows, the state could use some more transparency - the next step is clear.