Cooperating attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island have filed a lawsuit against the Providence Public School District (PPSD) and the City of Providence on behalf of GoLocalProv, LLC, for providing late and inappropriately redacted public records information about a controversial bidding process for a multimillion-dollar “integrated facilities services” for the school district. 

The suit comes after months of controversy around the bidding process for the over-70 million-dollars-a-year contract. The winner of the contract, ABM Industries, allegedly received a chance to enter an extra bid after its competitors, providing an unfair advantage. However, documentation of each proposal and the awarding of the contract was not released by PPSD or the City for residents to review.

GoLocal, a digital news organization that has been investigating the story, made an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request to PPSD for the bids made by the three prospective contractors. The documents that PPSD eventually provided were heavily redacted, and appeared to completely remove financial information from the bids — the very information that GoLocal wanted to review and report on to taxpayers. The lawsuit, filed in R.I. Superior Court by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Fausto C. Anguilla and Lynette Labinger, argues that GoLocal “has a legal right to obtain the requested documents withheld and the requested documents redacted without redactions, and no legal basis exists for Defendants’ failure to disclose them in full.”

The complaint notes that the Request For Proposals for the bid specifically stated that “all material submitted” by vendors in response to the RFP “shall be considered to be public records…without exception…” The complaint further alleges that the City’s Home Rule Charter requires sealed bids to be opened at a public meeting. Page after page of some of the documents provided to GoLocal are completely blacked out.

The suit also places PPSD at fault for not responding to GoLocal’s APRA request within the statute’s required ten-day response time without requesting an extension. The suit seeks a court order requiring that all the records be turned over immediately and the imposition of a fine and award of attorneys’ fees.

“Rhode Islanders and, in this case, especially Providence residents should be concerned about the cover-up linked to the costs and awarding of a $72 million contract," said Josh Fenton, CEO and co-founder of GoLocal. “It is an embarrassment for the McKee administration to allow RIDE and PPSD to continue to withhold public documents.”

ACLU cooperating attorney Anguilla added: “There is a growing pattern by education officials in Providence and at the state to try and deny the release of clearly public records. We firmly believe that the public needs to know that the bidding process is fair and in the best interest of the students, parents, and fair to taxpayers.”