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Public records 101

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 1, 2014

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A POTPOURRI OF PUBLIC INFO

Online news editor and Pawtucket and North Providence reporter for The Valley Breeze Ethan Shorey:

“Curious about what vacant commercial properties near you might soon be occupied by something undesirable? Websites like loopnet.com not only show available properties by community, but often give hints as to what those properties are being marketed for.

“Few websites offer more pure data than catalog.data.gov/dataset. Want to know how Americans use their time? Want to know which companies are getting the most consumer complaints? How about census numbers, government information on your food, or weather data? It’s all there. There are more than 100,000 datasets, all searchable by keyword.

“[Finally,] one of the first steps a company has to take before starting the process of opening is to file for a certificate of zoning compliance. It was fall of 2011 when a check of certificates in Pawtucket’s zoning office tipped me off before anyone else that the city was about to become a craft beer destination. Owners of two new breweries, High Jinx (now Foolproof) and the Bucket Brewery, had both filed for certificates within days of each other and without knowing about each other. A quick trip to City Hall landed me a pretty good story and a newfound love of craft beer.”

YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS WHEN MAKING RECORDS REQUESTS

Common Cause RI executive director John Marion:

“At first, that didn’t seem that important to me. But, as I’ve heard stories over the years, of people who have been publicly intimidated by government, the value of being able to do this anonymously, I think, is greatly enhanced. You might not think, if you go ask for tax records or whatever, that there’s value in anonymity. But there’s a real attitude sometimes with government, [of] ‘It’s the government’s information. Why would you want it?’

“[But] there are people out there who fear retribution from local government. So, there’s a value to letting people make these anonymous requests.”

BONUS ITEM: YOU ALSO HAVE THE RIGHT TO FILM AND RECORD COPS

It may be more of a first-amendment issue than a public-records fight, but we couldn’t help including this ever-important item from ACLU Rhode Island executive director Steve Brown:

“The First Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the federal appeals court that has jurisdiction over Rhode Island, has issued a few very strong decisions confirming that members of the public have a first-amendment right to record law enforcement activity occurring in public.

“Like any right, it’s not absolute. You don’t have a right to record when it would actually interfere with the police conduct that’s taking place. So, if you’re across the street and you see the police pull over a car and you want to record it, you have the right to do that. You don’t have the right to walk across the street and get in between the officer and the driver to record it.

“But the court made very clear that the ability of the public to record police activity in public is an essential exercise of a right guaranteed by the first amendment.”

Philip Eil can be reached atpeil@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.

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