One of the more interesting bills introduced in 2020 and derailed due to the Covid pandemic and the subsequent shut down of the Rhode Island General Assembly was H7518 from Representatives Brian Newberry (Republican, District 48, North Smithfield) and Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, Providence). The bi-partisan bill, upon passage, “would require that all meetings closed to the public be recorded by audio tape or other audio recording device.”
Newberry has reintroduced the bill (H5032) for consideration this year.
The Open Meetings Act governs the way governmental councils, committees, commissions and boards operate and seeks to guarantee that these public meetings are as open and transparent as possible. Under certain conditions, the Open Meetings Act allows members of these various government agencies to enter into executive session, away from public scrutiny, and discuss things that the public may not be privy to. Examples of appropriate executive session topics include discussing the details of contract negotiations and bids, or discussions about employees which may violate their privacy if revealed.
Under current law, the only mandated records of what is said inside an executive session are the minutes of the meetings. Minutes are hardly comprehensive documents, and many fear that some boards might enter into executive session and discuss topics that should be public.
Addressing the House Judiciary Committee about his bill last March, Representative Newberry explained, “If there’s a potential open meetings act violation, the process is that you file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office, and then they have certain procedures to decide whether they’re going to prosecute or investigate it… If the accusation is that the open meetings act is being violated by abusing the executive session protocol, how do you prove that?”
Newberry replied to my email about his legislation, saying, “I put that [bill] in in 2020 after a constituent raised an issue about appeals of Open Meeting Act violations and how they are handled by the Attorney General, evidentiary wise. We met with the Attorney General and raised the concerns. There were different ways we could go. This method seemed to make the most sense and the Attorney General ultimately took no position one way or another.”
During the testimony on the bill, (included in the video above) John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island, Steven Brown of the ACLU of Rhode Island, and Randall Rose of Rhode Island Rights all supported the legislation. The video also includes the testimony of Michael Clifford, who explains the situation that caused him to realize that such a bill was necessary.