RIPTA needs lessons in how the Open Meetings Act works

“I’m going to need you to gather up your stuff and come out into the hallway,” said James Pereira, Chief Security Officer at the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority (RIPTA), just ahead of the monthly meeting of the RIPTA board.

“Why?” I asked.

Pereira repeated his order.

“No,” I replied. “Why are you asking me this?”

“You’re not allowed to record in here,” said Pereira.

“Yes, I am,” I replied. “This is an open meeting. I have every right to record at an open meeting. Ask your lawyer.”

“We can ask him in the hall. Get your stuff.”

I turned on my camera, which was on my tripod, and began recording.

“I have to be outside before the attorney comes in and makes a ruling on this?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Pereira.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“We’ll talk to him in the hallway.”

“That is not the law,” I said.

Pereira stepped away, expecting me to grab my stuff and follow him. I left my camera running and my bag on the chair and stopped him before he got to the door.

“I’m not leaving this room,” I said.

“You need to turn your camera off,” said Pereira.

“I can’t turn my camera off,” I replied. “I’m a reporter.”

“You can’t turn it off? You had it off you just turned it on,” said Pereira, getting annoyed.

“I mean, I can’t turn it off on your orders,” I said. “That’s not the way this works.”

Pereira walked past me and grabbed my camera, turning it to face the wall.

I followed Pereira. “I’m happy to have the police come, if you want to call the police.”

“You know what?” said Pereira. “I’m asking you, nicely…”

“I’m asking you nicely to give up your rights,” I interrupted. “I’m asking you nicely to violate the constitution.”

“No, I’m not asking you to…”

“You can’t do that in a nice way,” I said, interrupting Pereira again.

“I’m not asking you to give up your rights,” said Pereira. “I’m asking you to consult with an attorney to determine whether or not we have the right to say no, you can’t videotape.”

“Okay,” I said. “Go ahead. Ask the attorney. I’m waiting. Willing to wait.”

“He’s not here yet,” said Pereira.

“Oh, then I have the right,” I said. “You don’t think anyone here has any knowledge of the Open Meetings Act? This is an open meeting, that means I have the right to record. That’s just the rule.”

“That’s just access,” said Pereira.

“What do you mean access?” I asked.

“Access to the meeting.”

“Nope, it’s about recording,” I said.

I could see RIPTA CEO and former Mayor of Warwick Scott Avedisian, as well as Wayne Kezirian, chair of the RIPTA board, watching the conversation, even though they were pretending not to be. I raised my voice, addressing Pereira and everyone in the room.

“Clearly it is permissible to record this meeting under the Open Meetings Act, under Rhode Island State Law,” I said.

The lawyer, Christopher Fragomeni, entered the room. Pereira went to consult with him. “Would you step outside with me please?” he asked me again.

“I’m not going to go outside,” I said to the room, loudly enough for everyone to hear. “I am not under your jurisdiction.”

“I’m going to consult my attorney,” said Pereira, Leaving me to myself.

“And,” I said, readjusting my camera, which had been facing a wall this whole time, “You touched my camera.” I was talking to myself, though.

As Pereira consulted with Fragomeni, I addressed the room. “This is an open meeting. It is legal to record this meeting. I’m being told I have to turn this camera off. That is not the way this works.

No one approached me after that, and I recorded the meeting without incident. (That recording should be the topic of a future post.)


After the meeting, I caught up with RIPTA CEO Scott Avidisian.

“I just want to ask about the whole Open Meetings Act thing,” I began. “I was being told by Pereira over here that I wasn’t able to record.”

“The issue isn’t recording,” said board chair Wayne Kezirian, joining the conversation and attempting to make light of the situation, “It’s that I have a Rhode Island accent…”

I wasn’t inclined to make light of the situation. In the current political climate, we cannot pretend that the media and journalism are not under assault, or that the experience I had should be somehow be dismissed as a well intentioned misunderstanding.

“I just want you to know that under the Open Meetings Act…” I began.

“Oh yeah, You can record,” said Kezirian, again trying to make light of the situation with a self-deprecating remark about the way he looks on camera.

“Pereira came on very strong,” I interrupted, “Asking me to leave, go outside and wait for the lawyer to approve it…”

“That shouldn’t be happening…” said Kezirian.

“He should know the law on the Open Meetings Act,” I said. “I think everyone here should.”

“Well, on that – There’s a couple of different opinions out there,” said Kezirian and again with a joke: “I just personally hate the way I sound on tape.”

“I will try and have the ACLU contact you anyway, because I want to make sure that it’s properly enforced here,” I said, watching Kezirian’s smile vanish. “This is a big deal. Someone who was less sure of themself may have backed off and left.”

“I didn’t want you to leave,” said Kezirian.

“Pereira asked me to step out until I got permission from a lawyer,” I said.

“The lawyer immediately said it was fine,” said Kezirian.

“I didn’t know that,” I said. “And that’s fine, but I would have been outside with all my stuff. He put his hand on my camera and turned it towards the wall. There’s a lot of other issues here. Those things should never have happened, and I want to be on record on that.”

“You’re on record,” said Kezirian.

I wasn’t on record. I’m not on record. All of this conversation I’m relaying to you here happened before and after the meeting and is not part of the official public record. But I digress.

“And again,” I said. “Other reporters, younger people who don’t their rights, may have been swayed by [Pereira] and might have left. And that would have been a very bad thing for public access and open government.”

Here’s video and audio, neither any good,of my conversation with Pereira before the RIPTA Board meeting began:

Here’s video and audio, neither any good,of my conversation with Kezirian and Avidisian after the RIPTA Board meeting ended:


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About Steve Ahlquist 670 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com

2 Comments

  1. We should all admire Steve for the assertive way he stood up for his rights and our right to know what goes on.

    I am disappointed that this happened at RIPTA, an agency that needs more public support, not
    a sign of hostility to the public. While Board Chair Wayne Kezirian has acknowledged the abuse, and though it was a Board meeting, I hope Steve gets a supportive response from CEO Scott Avedisian who is now in charge of running RIPTA.

    I have long tried to promote RIPTA as it has much (largely untapped) potential to build our economy, serve our land use goals, and protect our environment, especially with regard to climate change, while enhancing our personal mobility options, but incidents like this don’t make it easier. That said, please note that unlike other Boards and Commissions, RIPTA does allow public comment at the start of each meeting (I was there for that purpose at this meeting) and I encourage others who can do so to come and give their comments.

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