NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The Narragansett Town Council routinely video records its regular meetings and makes the recordings available on YouTube, usually within a day.
But a move by Council Member Jesse Pugh to make audio recordings of the council’s closed-door executive sessions failed to gain traction.
A vote Aug. 5 to amend council rules to make the audio recordings failed along the same lines as votes for the stalled project to renovate the former IGA/Belmont building into a new town library. Council President Matthew Mannix, President Pro Tem Jill Lawler and Richard Lema voted not to proceed, while Pugh and Councilor Patrick Murray were in favor.
Many executive sessions over the past six months have involved discussion of the former Belmont property, which the majority on the council voted to sell in January instead of turn into a library.
Pugh said he wanted to have the sessions recorded digitally as a permanent archive in order to supplement written minutes, and to “add context and accuracy.”
Those recordings, like the minutes, would have remained under lock and key in the clerk’s office, Pugh said.
“It turns out that a lot of other towns in this state and across the country actually video record their executive session meetings,” Pugh said. “They keep them private, but they are recorded for record-keeping.”
Other bodies do audio recordings, he said. “It’s basically a backup to guarantee accuracy of the minutes and to ease the burden on the minute-taker.”
Pugh said recordings also help to avoid a “he said, she said” situation, because the parties could go back and refer to the recording for clarification. He called recording the sessions an easy step. The recorded minutes would be able to be stored on a secure computer at Town Hall, he added.
Murray supported it.
“The only concern I’d have is, I’d have to clean up my language on some of these executive sessions,” he said.
Responding to a question from Lawler about how such recordings are used, Town Clerk Theresa Donovan said she contacted clerks in the state’s other 38 municipalities to ask if they made executive session recordings.
Of those that responded, 11 make audio recordings, she said. “Although most do not keep it as a permanent record. It is to assist the scribe in preparing the minutes of the executive session.”
Sixteen municipalities that responded don’t record their executive sessions, she said.
Donovan said that in the last legislative session, members of the state’s town and city clerks association testified against what she said was a bill advocating for broad reforms tied to the Open Meetings Act.
“One of the elements that was opposed was the recording of executive sessions, for various reasons,” she said. State Rep. Carol Hagen McEntee introduced the legislation but withdrew it, Donovan said.
Donovan said concerns arose over how to protect attorney-client privileged discussions from being leaked.
Other reasons included opposition to the costs involved as well as mandates that would have required video recording meetings of many other municipal bodies besides town or city councils, Donovan said.
“Not just the recording of executive sessions,” she said.
Executive sessions are often used to discuss sensitive issues such as litigation against a town or city, personnel matters, or contract negotiations. Since the year began, 14 of 21 posted executive sessions have involved the Belmont property. The council also is in the midst of hiring a new town manager, and has included talks about that in its sessions.
Pugh said that his request wasn’t about questioning the accuracy of Donovan or any minute-takers. But a person can only take a limited amount of notes, he said.
“You can get the gist of the conversation, but not all of it,” he said.
He also said he anticipated that information from executive sessions might one day be subpoenaed in court action regarding the sale of the Belmont property.
“Do you want notes of the executive session or the actual recording,” he asked.