“Given this history of repeated violations, the patent inadequacy of the agenda item, and the multiple admonishments provided to the City on this exact issue, together with the City Council’s discussion of substantive matters under the “Good and Welfare” agenda item, the Office alleges that the City Council’s violation of the OMA was willful or knowing.“
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha announced today that the Office of the Attorney General has filed a complaint in Rhode Island Superior Court alleging that the Woonsocket City Council willfully or knowingly violated the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act (OMA). The lawsuit requests a court order, preventing the City Council from using an improper agenda item, and civil penalties.
“Openness and transparency are critical for our government institutions and public bodies to function in a way that effectively serves the best interests of the public,” said Attorney General Neronha. “We will take action to ensure compliance with the requirements of our open government laws.”
Today’s filing comes after the Office of the Attorney General found that the City Council had violated the OMA at its July 1, 2019, August 5, 2019, and October 7, 2019 meetings when the agenda item that was used, “Good and Welfare,” did not sufficiently specify the nature of the business to be discussed.
UpriseRI covered the August 5, 2019 hearing here: The Woonsocket City Council refuses to understand the Open Meetings Act
This Office previously found that the City Council’s use of the same “Good and Welfare” agenda item to discuss several different issues violated the OMA because it lacked any identifying information concerning the nature of the business to be discussed. At that time, the Office of the Attorney General warned the City Council that the finding served as notice that the use of the “Good and Welfare” agenda item was unlawful and that the finding may serve as evidence of a willful or a knowing violation in any similar future situation.
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The Office was also presented with evidence that the City Council’s former solicitor had warned the City Council that discussing various issues under such a broad agenda item violated the OMA.
In the decision for the July 1 and August 5 complaints from former Woonsocket City Councilmember Richard Fagnant, the Attorney General writes, “While the City Council has used this broad agenda topic to discuss various non-noticed matters, we are also concerned by the Complainant’s undisputed assertion that the City Council invoked the OMA’s notice provision as a basis to prevent Complainant from offering citizen comment pursuant to an item that had been added to the August 5, 2019 meeting agenda at Complainant’s request. This further evidences that the City Council was well aware of its notice obligations under the OMA, but utilized the OMA to limit a citizen’s comments while failing to conform its own conduct to the OMA’s requirements...” (emphasis mine)
Earlier in 2019, the Office found that the City Council violated this exact same provision of the OMA when it discussed various public matters under a similarly vague agenda item.
Given this history of repeated violations, the patent inadequacy of the agenda item, and the multiple admonishments provided to the City on this exact issue, together with the City Council’s discussion of substantive matters under the “Good and Welfare” agenda item, the Office alleges that the City Council’s violation of the OMA was willful or knowing.
In addition to injunctive relief, the Office is seeking the assessment of civil fines. Under the OMA, the Superior Court may impose a fine of up to $5,000 if a public body is found to have committed a knowing or willful violation of the statute.
The Woonsocket City Solicitor is John DeSimone, former Rhode Island State Representative and former House Majority Leader. At the August 5 Woonsocket City Council meeting DeSimone said, “I probably voted for the Open Meetings Act [as a state representative]. I didn’t think that [the Attorney General’s office] would take it to the extreme – It does stifle debate.”
The OMA provides various requirements intended to ensure that meetings of public bodies are open and accessible to the public. If an individual believes that a public body has violated a provision of the OMA, he or she may file a complaint with the Office of Attorney General’s Open Government Unit. The Open Government Unit then investigates the complaint and issues an administrative finding.
The Office of Attorney General is authorized to file a lawsuit in Superior Court against the public body if it finds that injunctive relief is necessary or that the violation was willful or knowing.
[From a press release with additional reporting from Steve Ahlquist]