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Legislatures feeling their way into online meetings



Under the executive order modifying the Open Meetings Act, only “essential” agenda items may be discussed.

In order to comply with Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo‘s executive order to limit gatherings to no more than 25 people, the Providence City Council decided to hold their Thursday, March 19 meeting via teleconference. This is allowed due to another executive order from Governor Raimondo making changes to the Open Meetings Act to allow for meetings to be held telephonically or by video conferencing.

The office of Attorney General Peter Neronha issued guidelines for conducting meetings:

Under the executive order modifying the Open Meetings Act, only “essential” agenda items may be discussed. “Essential” is defined as “that which is necessary for continued government operations or to ensure compliance with statutory or regulatory guidelines.”

The ACLU of Rhode Island and Common Cause Rhode Island are raising concerns about Governor Raimondo’s executive order and are asking for changes.

See: ACLU and Common Cause Raise Concerns About Suspension of Open Government Laws

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Looking at the agenda for Thursday’s Providence City Council meeting, it was decided by Providence City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana that items 19-37 were non-essential, but that items 3-17 were essential.

Here’s the audio:

As you can hear, most of the essential items were either received or sent to committee. Items and 8 and 9 were zoning ordinances that passes unanimously.

I asked Providence City Council President Sabina Matos why these zoning variances were considered essential. The questions part of a press conference conducted via Zoom.

“These are items that came out of committee,” said Matos. “So the options that we had were to refer them back to committee, so that’s why we took action on those items today… Items coming out of committees [are] essential. Because they are coming out of committees, we need to take action on them.”

City Council spokesperson Billy Kepner explained that if the item were sent back to committee, the committee would have to revote on the item.

Here’s video of the Zoom press conference:

The Pawtucket City Council is taking a completely different approach to their meeting, scheduled for March 25. According to press release, “As usual, the meeting will be streamed live, allowing the residents to watch on-line at”

The instructions for the public to participate in the meeting are as follows:

“Participation will be available by email or by telephone. To make your views known by email at the Public Input Period, public hearings before the Pawtucket Board of License Commissioners, and the public hearing on the Redevelopment Plan #16, the Council is accepting email testimony at until 6pm on March 25th.

“Individuals desiring to be heard by telephone on March 25th may call the following number during the times listed below: 1-888-475-4499 (US Toll-free)

“ENTER MEETING ID: 385 128 106#

“ENTER: # when asked for participant ID.

“People wishing to speak must call in by the following times:

“To speak at PUBLIC INPUT PERIOD, you must call in by 6:20pm.

“To speak at the PUBLIC HEARINGS FOR LICENSES, you must call in by 6:45 p.m.

“To speak at the PUBLIC HEARING FOR REDEVELOPMENT PLAN #16 – you must call in by 7pm.

“As is done when speaking at any city council meetings, all participants will be asked to give their name and address to the clerk.”