Rep. Robert Craven (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown) recently introduced legislation seeking amendments to the state’s Open Meetings Act which, if approved, would require more transparency from all governing bodies across the state.
Among the notable changes, Craven’s 21-page House Bill 5856 proposes that all public bodies, including municipal entities, keep official and/or approved minutes of all meetings and that they “shall file a copy” of those minutes of all open meetings with the secretary of state’s office within 35 days of a meeting for public review. The proposed changes also require the meeting minutes be made available on the public body’s website.
Currently, only state entities, like the Quonset Development Corp.’s Board of Directors, are required by law to post their meeting minutes with the secretary of state’s office. Local governing bodies – city and town councils and school committees, for example – do not have to post their minutes.
In an interview March 16, Craven said the minutes are “most informative” for the public to review and understand what transpired at a meeting if they were unable to attend in person. Those minutes “become the record” of what was discussed, voted on or agreed to by the officials present, he said.
“As a result, both for the benefit of the public and the benefit of those who choose to weigh in at a subsequent date to say, ‘Wait a minute, I wasn’t at the meeting, but you shouldn’t do this; you should do A and not B,’ you should not be forced to debate the issue with your elected official of whether something did or didn’t happen, or if they said something or didn’t say something,” Craven said. “The only way to deal with it is to not only have clear minutes, but also have those minutes posted so there isn’t any problem acquiring those minutes in some way other than a request under the Open Records Act.”
Reps. Deborah Ruggerio (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), Patricia Serpa (D-Dist. 27, Warwick, West Warwick, Coventry), Kenneth Marshall (D-Dist. 68, Bristol, Warren) and Alex Marszalkowski (D-Dist. 52, Cumberland) are co-sponsors to Craven’s proposed bill, which he introduced March 3.
Craven’s proposal dates back to his email communication with North Kingstown Town Councilor Ellen Waxman, who requested the local lawmaker sponsor her proposed changes to the Open Meetings Act. Those changes “will go a long way toward improving transparency in municipal government,” she wrote to Craven in a Sept. 22, 2016, email, obtained by The Independent March 16.
Waxman told Craven via email she was critical of North Kingstown’s lack of posted meeting minutes. She wrote at the time North Kingstown had not posted any regular Town Council meeting minutes to its website since March 30, 2015, and did not believe any executive session minutes had been made available “in recent years” either.
Several regular Town Council meeting minutes after March 30, 2015, have since been posted to the town’s website, but not every regular meeting has a record available electronically.
“The shroud of secrecy that surrounds North Kingstown’s decision-making must stop,” Waxman wrote to Craven. “Citizens in all of Rhode Island’s municipalities have a right to weigh in on important decisions involving their taxpayer dollars!”
Waxman told a reporter via email March 16 she then contacted Common Cause RI Executive Director John Marion about her proposed changes to the OMA, with Marion acknowledging her suggestions were in concert with legislation he and government watchdog nonprofit ACCESS RI previously submitted to Smith Hill for consideration.
In an interview March 16, Marion said he reviewed “decades worth” of complaints filed with the state attorney general’s office regarding possible Open Meeting Act violations two years ago during ACCESS RI’s and Common Cause’s review of the law. He cataloged the subjects of the complaints, then looked at the current law and sought ways to make improvements to the Open Meetings Act.
“We also looked at how other jurisdictions use technology to make public meetings more open,” he said. “So, we did a draft of this bill two years ago ... and submitted it on behalf of the [ACCESS RI] coalition.”
Former Scituate and Cranston state representative Mike Marcello sponsored the proposed Open Meetings Act amendments, but lost his seat this past November, Marion said, which put the brakes on the bill. However, Marion asked Craven to introduce the bill after his conversations with Waxman, who was “equally interested” in working on the Open Meetings Act.
“I showed [Waxman] our bill and she had some suggested additions to it,” Marion said. “We incorporated several of those.”
In addition, House Bill 5856 proposes that records of votes taken at all public meetings – noting how each member voted on the discussed issues – be made public and be posted electronically “on the public body’s website, the secretary of state’s website” and be made available at the public body’s office within seven days of the vote. The law currently requires a two-week window for availability of voting results and requires they’re available only at the public office, not online.
Under the terms of Craven’s proposal, unofficial minutes would also be made public at the public office within 21 days of the meeting or “no later than” five days before the public body’s next scheduled meeting. Currently, the law calls for unofficial minutes to be public either within 35 days of the public body’s prior meeting or at said body’s next scheduled meeting.
Regarding public notice of meetings, Craven’s bill would exclude weekends and holidays from the 48-hour window to notify the public. In North Kingstown, Town Council agendas for Monday meetings are currently posted late Friday, with the weekend being the 48-hour window. Craven’s bill, if passed, will cease this practice.
“Weekends are a time where people tend to do less work as well as less public involvement in the political process,” Craven said. He also noted the change would give people more time to review all documentation pertaining to the scheduled hearings – as well as ask town officials about those hearings or make a stand on a particular issue – than just the morning of the hearings until the end of the town’s business day.
Craven’s bill would also require all public bodies to post “all public documents” to be discussed at the noticed meeting with their electronic filings with the secretary of state’s office. Entities will be subject to a minimum $100 fine for each document found to be in noncompliance, Craven’s bill states.
Additionally, under “public comment,” Craven’s legislation proposes public bodies will not be prohibited from responding to public comments during meetings even if the matters brought up by residents were not previously posted, provided said matters will be for “informational purposes only” and not voted on unless an “unexpected occurrence” requires immediate action.
The proposed bill also considers the use of rolling quorums – defined as “less than a quorum is present, whether in person or by means of electronic communication, at any individual gathering; the members of the public body attending one or more of the gatherings collectively constitute a quorum; and the series of gatherings was held to discuss and/or act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power” – as violating the Open Meetings Act.
In addition, the bill would require cities and towns to phase in having all of their meetings both live streamed and available on a town website and the secretary of state’s website within 72 hours after the meetings adjourn. Those meetings would be made available for “at least” five years.
Craven’s bill will be forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee – of which Craven is a member – and a hearing will be posted for discussion. Craven believes both Waxman and Marion will testify at the hearing.
Unless there are major complications with the bill, Craven said it will be voted on by the Judiciary Committee and then head to the House floor no later than the first full week of April for discussion and possible vote.
Marion said the goals are threefold if the bill is passed – to encourage usage of technology by government at all levels to “make public meetings more accessible”; deal with the “adverse decisions” from the attorney general’s office and courts about the Open Meetings Act from the last two decades that, Common Cause believes, “don’t go in the public’s favor”; and incorporate the “good” legal interpretations into the law.