Woonsocket City Council rejects two good government bills, vows to fight Attorney General on OMA violations“To take a view that maybe all the former Attorney Generals were lax in their duties and now finally we have an aggressive, overzealous Attorney General, thank God, somebody’s really watching over us now, I don’t want to live in that country,” said Woonsocket City Council President Daniel Gendron. “I don’t want to live where – where our hands are
Published on January 16, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist
“To take a view that maybe all the former Attorney Generals were lax in their duties and now finally we have an aggressive, overzealous Attorney General, thank God, somebody’s really watching over us now, I don’t want to live in that country,” said Woonsocket City Council President Daniel Gendron. “I don’t want to live where – where our hands are so tied and our mouths are so gagged – that that’s a good country to live in. That is not the United States that I want to live in. It sickens me that anyone would think that’s a good thing.“
The Woonsocket City Council is currently being sued by the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act (OMA). Woonsocket City Councilmember Alex Kithes introduced legislation to deal with one part of the problem but that legislation was defeated after a lengthy debate that exposed some of the deep misunderstandings most the city councilmembers have about the OMA.
- The Woonsocket City Council refuses to understand the Open Meetings Act
- Attorney General files lawsuit against Woonsocket City Council alleging willful or knowing violation of open meetings law
On every Woonsocket City Council meeting agenda is an item entitled “Good and Welfare” which City Councilmembers use to speak on any subject that occurs to them – which means that substantial conversations can take place on issues that may be important to Woonsocket residents, but since these issues are not itemized on the agenda, residents have no way of knowing what issues their councilmembers may or may not be speaking on.
The OMA was passed to ensure that meetings of importance to the public are properly noticed, so that interested residents can attend those meetings where issues of concern to them are being discussed.
Over the last year or so the Woonsocket City Council has been dinged three times by the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office, and the third time resulted in a fine.
“Council Good and Welfare is a vague, nontransparent agenda item. It is unnecessary to the functioning of the council, risks regular violations of the Open Meetings Act, and is now frivolously costing our taxpayers money,” said Kithes in a statement. “It’s time to eliminate Good and Welfare of the Council in the spirit of good, open, transparent government, and to protect our city from further costly litigation and penalties.”
Instead of passing the legislation, the majority of the Woonsocket City Council decided to double down on their position that the Open Meetings Act is being misapplied to them by an overzealous Attorney General.
The rest of the City Council opposed Kithes.
“I am not going to agree to remove section from the rules of order as it exists, from the agenda of the city council, because we’ve been accused of something,” said Woonsocket City Council Vice President Jon Brien. “Because we’ve been accused, we should therefore give up our rights? If I’m accused of murder I’m not going to plead guilty just because I’ve been accused. If I haven’t done it, I’m going to fight it.
“This is overreach by the Attorney General’s office,” continued Brien.
Brien then went on to give an example about seeing graffiti on a statue in the City and reporting the graffiti to the Mayor’s office. That, he said, is not a violation of the Open Meetings Act. (Which is true, but the Council is not being accused of anything like that by the Attorney General. Nothing stops Brien from notifying the Administration about graffiti. It merely means that if Brien wants to discuss graffiti at the a City Council meeting, then it has to be on the agenda.)
“It’s clear that in [Attorney General Neronha’s] administration, there’s an attitude of ‘there’s a new sheriff in town and we’re going to make sure that you know that.'” continued Brien. “Some have accused the previous Attorney General of being too lax, I think this Attorney General is pushing the needle too far. I’m not willing to let go of Good and Welfare until such time that I’ve been told by the Rhode Island Superior Court that we committed a willing and knowing violation of the OMA. I do not believe that’s the case and I believe we ought to fight it, merely on principle.
Operating under the OMA the way the Attorney General is enforcing it is “no way to conduct a public forum. You cannot effectively be a public servant and be constantly muzzled, having no ability whatsoever to have any spontaneity of thought, any spontaneity in expression, any ability to bring something forward that may be pressing to me or someone in the audience,” concluded Brien.
“I agree with Councilman Brien wholeheartedly,” said Councilmember James Cournoyer.
Cournoyer pointed out that between the agenda being posted on Thursday and the meeting taking place on Monday, things could happen in Woonsocket that the council members may feel are important to discuss.
The issues and discussions brought up during Good and Welfare are “informational,” added Cournoyer. “Nothing more than informational stuff that’s been discussed here. There’s been no actions, no votes, no deliberations. It’s just information, open and transparent, in public, on the TV and the radio.”
Cournoyer seemed unaware that the “discussions” by councilmembers he referred to are by definition, “deliberations.”
“This nonsense of every time we have a meeting – jumping up and down about Open Meetings Act to try to stifle discussion and debate are from some of the same people who want to discuss things at council meetings,” said Cournoyer.
The complaints, said Cournoyer, “are in my opinion frivolous. This is form over substance in my opinion, because the Open Meetings Act allows us to talk about everything we just talked about.”
Cournoyer noted that a section of the Open Meetings Act allows members to add items to the agenda via a majority vote by the members. “So we could could talk about all the things we talk about during Good and Welfare but we’ll slow the meeting down and say ‘I’d like to add to the agenda…’
“There’s no one here trying not to be transparent, there’s no one here trying to sneak stuff through. It’s all done in public, it’s informational,” continued Cournoyer.
As for Attorney General Neronha, “I do sense that he’s trying to send a message, and I get that, but I think this is overreach, I think it’s gone to far, and I think it’s worth clarifying in the courts because I’m not willing to wave the white flag.”
Woonsocket City Solicitor John DeSimone, who voted for the Open Meetings Act when he was a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, agreed with Brien and Cournoyer.
“Let’s not forget that [under] the Open Meetings Act, the AG looks at it and gives an opinion. But the ultimate decider of whether or not that opinion is correct or not is the courts. So [a] particular AG may come up with an opinion that is contrary to what we did, but that doesn’t necessarily make that opinion right either,” said DeSimone.
“So I urge being cautious and not commenting on Good and Welfare, until we have a final resolution. I don’t think the City of Woonsocket should be changing their rules and agenda items merely because some Attorney that happens to work at the AG’s office this particular year gave an opinion on that.
“I was at the legislature when we created the Open Meetings Act,” continued DeSimone. “And certainly the intent was not to stifle councils and other boards from commenting on current events or things that might be of interest to a particular community. It was to prevent them from voting on matters of consequence, so that people would have notice. It wasn’t to prevent them, you know, from saying Aunt Nellie’s 90th birthday is next week.
“So while this particular Attorney General, and I’m not talking about Peter Neronha, who’s a fantastic attorney, and I have the utmost respect for him, but there’s people in his office that they –
“I remember when I was a young lawyer I saw John Lynch – I don’t know if you remember John Lynch – He gave a final argument to the jury once. He said, ‘You know, my mother was a great cook, but once in a while she burned the buns.’ So I would say that perhaps this Attorney General is an outstanding attorney and a crackerjack, but I would agree on your opinion about this.,” continued DeSimone.
“I do think that we have to confine ourselves when we come to Good and Welfare, that we should really talk about public events and announcements, but until we’re shown to be wrong by a court, I don’t think we should take affirmative action changing our rules. Let’s see if the court agrees with the Attorney General or agrees with me, or with the Council. That’s why we have courts. We should be cautious, but we should stick up for our rights. I don’t think we should bend over and lay down on our rights just because one attorney happens to have a different opinion of it,” concluded DeSimone.
Councilmember John Ward noted the many places in the Open Meetings Act allowing board and council members the opportunity to speak on items not on the agenda, by voting to add them to the agenda, or by responding to public comments in a an informational manner.
“So I think if the courts were to want to find us in violation, then they or the [Rhode Island General Assembly] has the responsibility to clarify these definitions,” said Ward.
“It’s been pointed out that we have the highest number of violations filed against us as the City Council. We’re the top of the heap,” said Ward. “All that means is that more of our people locally take their politics seriously. They’re looking to poke people in the eye. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad. It just means there are people out there wanting to poke people in the eye, that doesn’t happen as often in other communities.”
Councilmember David Soucy asked if maybe the Council could get training on the OMA (which is provided on request, for free, from the Attorney General’s office with a simple phone call.)
“The potential of those fines and the headache of these things that we can maybe avoid, by being wiser about what we can talk about,” would be a great reason to have OMA training for the Council, said Soucy.
Council President Daniel Gendron recommended that before the Council takes classes in the OMA, they should see what the court decides about the fines.
“In this country, it’s still innocent until proven guilty,” said Councilmember Denise Sierra. “So I can’t support [the] legislation because I will never give that up.”
Kithes defended his legislation, noting that an Attorney General zealously enforcing the Open Meetings Act where previous Attorneys General had been less zealous is a good thing.
Council President Gendron responded angrily by calling Kithes’ words, “a kick in the gut.”
“To take a view that maybe all the former Attorney Generals were lax in their duties and now finally we have an aggressive, overzealous Attorney General, thank God, somebody’s really watching over us now, I don’t want to live in that country,” said Woonsocket City Council President Daniel Gendron. “I don’t want to live where – where our hands are so tied and our mouths are so gagged – that that’s a good country to live in. That is not the United States that I want to live in. It sickens me that anyone would think that’s a good thing.
“The other point is that the irony of the Open Meetings Act is that it’s suppose to promote open dialog and open meetings, and the answer that we get is that if something comes up between Wednesday at four o’clock and Monday at seven o’clock, instead of doing it publicly and open, we hide in the shadows and we call people and we do things on the phone where people can’t see or hear it. And that promotes open government? Are we nuts?
“It’s lunacy, at best,” said Gendron.
The legislation failed on a 6-1 vote.
The other piece of legislation brought forward by Kithes, would update the city’s website to include direct links to the campaign finance reports of every elected official that represents any or all citizens of Woonsocket, from the School Committee all the way up to the President.
“This type of transparency is something that I was asked to work on over and over at the doors, while campaigning for my election last summer,” said Kithes in a statement. “People want to know who is bankrolling their politicians, and the state and federal campaign finance databases aren’t the easiest sites to use.”
This measure also failed on a 6-1 vote.
“I was surprised and disturbed that the very basic good government measures I introduced at Monday’s City Council meeting not only didn’t pass, but were opposed for what appeared to be largely manufactured excuses by the majority of the Council,” said Kithes, reached for comment on Thursday.
“Members of our City Council do appear to have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act while speaking under the vague, largely unnecessary agenda item of Council Good and Welfare. Unfortunately, it looks like we will only have the votes to remove that item from our agenda after paying thousands of dollars of taxpayer money in fines to the state government.
“And as for the vote against campaign finance transparency: I have nothing to hide from the public; I wish my fellow council-members felt the same.”
Here’s the video:
Councilmember Jim Cournoyer responded:
Cournoyer seemed unaware that the “discussions” by councilmembers he referred to are by definition, “deliberations.”
Ha, nice try Steve.
From Merriam-Webster’s (emphasis added):
Definition of deliberation
1a: the act of thinking about or discussing something and deciding carefully After careful deliberation, he decided to study medicine rather than law.
The following is from the Open Meetings Act: § 42-46-1. Public policy.
It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.
§ 42-46-6. Notice.
(b) Nothing contained herein shall prevent a public body….from adding additional items to the agenda by majority vote of the members.
In fact, there were no votes, no decisions, no actions, no deliberations. Contrary to AG Nerohna’s assertion, there was no “substantive” city business conducted and decided during any of the incidents in question. Congratulating people, asking for information (e.g. requesting the Administration to provide the Council with a copy of a HUD audit report that was the subject of a front page article in one of the local papers), informing the public of information. All done in OPEN.
Regarding campaign finance reports, they are all very much available on the State’s BOE website. Your friend Alex posted the following statement: “They refused to honor the wishes of our constituents, by making all Woonsocket elected officials’ campaign finance reports readily accessible on the city’s website”. The problem is that despite his best efforts to gin up support via Facebook and UpRise for his latest “solution in search of a problem”, there were no constituents expressing such alleged wishes. Just another one of Alex’s fantasies.
In any event, I do sleep well at night knowing that you and Alex are on the beat, being the good arbiters of what is and is not deemed “good government”.
PS – is Senator Murray going to file an OMA violation against the Woonsocket City Council in light of the fact that the Campaign Manager of her last senatorial campaign, Alex Kithes, invoked her name during the Dec 16 Council Good & Welfare to pat her on the back in connection with her work on the City’s Holiday Stroll event? Or does she just file such things only if her name is invoked with respect to disagreeing with her?
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