NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – The state attorney general’s office ruled late last month that the Town Council violated open meetings laws in meetings it held to find and select a new town manager.
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s ruling came Nov. 29 in response to separate complaints filed by Dennis Monahan, Amanda Moss and Melissa Jenkins.
As a result, Neronha has ordered the council to unseal parts of executive session minutes from council meetings held in May, June and July that don’t address job performance or qualifications. It also must unseal executive session minutes from the July 15, 22 and 29 meetings. The council also must disclose consensus decisions that were not announced in open session.
Town Council President Matthew Mannix has indicated the town is complying with the order.
Neronha’s office will review the released minutes, and it has left open the possibility that an individual could file action against the council in Superior Court.
The complaints alleged that the council violated the Open Meetings Act when it discussed, conducted interviews, negotiated a contract and selected a new town manager in a series of executive session meetings in May, June and July. Executive sessions are closed to the public and the minutes are typically sealed from public view.
The complainants contended that “it does not appear that any specific person was discussed at any or all of the meetings, or that any specific person was given notice of a meeting, or that the option for an open meeting was provided to that specific person, as required by law.”
The council’s attorney, Andrew Berg, responded that the council held five executive sessions to interview candidates and discuss qualifications and ultimately to select a candidate to make an offer of employment. Three additional sessions took place to update the status of contract negotiations with the selected candidate.
Neronha said the OMA allows for executive sessions to interview candidates and discuss their qualifications.
“We have, however, determined that certain interview-related matters are inappropriate for executive session discussion,” he said.
Neronha found that discussions of job performance or qualifications of applicants at the May 31, June 5, 24 and 29 and July 8 Narragansett council meetings were appropriate for executive session.
But Neronha’s review found the council also discussed “other matters” related to the town manager search in executive session, “such as how to proceed with advertising the position, collecting resumes and scheduling interviews for the position, as well as how the council would determine which applicants to interview and how to proceed if a council member was contacted by an applicant.”
The council also discussed potential contract terms in a July 8 executive session.
“Discussion of these topics – which did not pertain to any individual applicant’s job performance or qualifications – in executive session … violated the OMA,” Neronha said.
A brief July 15 update about a proposed contract offer also was a violation, he said. Similar discussions on July 22 and 29 also violated the act.
Further review showed the council failed to disclose in open session that it had reached decisions or “consensus” on matters involving the town manager search and hiring at six meetings. Such disclosure is required by law.
The council voted unanimously Aug. 26 to appoint James Tierney as the new manager, and he was sworn in Sept. 16.
In reviewing the complaints, Neronha’s office did not find that the violations were “willful and knowing, in part because there are no recent similar findings of violations against the council.”
Residents attending several open council meetings over the summer had complained about the closed process the council was using for several matters, including the search for a new manager and the decisions regarding a potential sale of the town-owned Belmont/IGA market building.