opinion Newport Rhode Island

While following the process to fill the vacant Newport City Council seat, there have been several steps during the last month that have done more than make me raise my eyebrows and question why and how things were happening the way they were.

It is my belief that there has been some violations of the Open Meetings Act by the Newport City Council as they have moved forward to fill the open position that was recently vacated by John Florez.

What is the Open Meetings Act? According to The Attorney General’s Guide to Open Government In Rhode Island Edition 6, “The Open Meetings Act (OMA) is a chapter of the Rhode Island General Laws designed to ensure that the peoples’ business is conducted in an open manner so that the public may participate in their government and so that government will be accountable to the public. By conducting the public’s business in an open forum, public bodies gather input from citizens concerned with the decisions being contemplated. By observing and participating in their government’s decisions, citizens of this State gain increased accountability from their elected and appointed representatives. Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act provides for this input and accountability by assuring that decisions affecting the public are made in public. The OMA does, however, recognize that a limited number of situations allow public bodies to meet in closed session to best serve the interests of the public. These limited exceptions to the OMA are specifically defined to protect the narrow interests served by the exceptions”.

When Can A Meeting Be Closed? According to The Attorney General’s Guide to Open Government In Rhode Island Edition 6, “The Open Meetings Act mandates that “[e]very meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public,” unless closed pursuant to one of the following exceptions: 1. Discussions relating to the job performance, character, or physical or mental health of a person(s), provided that:  (a) the affected person(s) receive advanced written notice advising that they may require the meeting to be held in open session, (b) the public body states in its open call that the affected person(s) have been notified, and (c) the public body records in its open session minutes that the affected person(s) have been notified”.

Based on the above information from the Attorney General’s Guide and the actions by the Newport City Council, I submitted the following letter today to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office questioning whether there has been potential violations of the Open Meetings Act by Newport City Council;

To whom it may concern:

I’m a Newport resident, radio talk show host, and local reporter who has been following closely the vacancy of a Newport City Council position. It is my belief that there have been some violations of the Open Meetings Act by the Newport City Council as they have moved forward to fill this open position.

Among other potential violations, I believe they have used the phone to conduct rolling quorums and have improperly recessed into Executive Sessions.

On November 22, 2017, Newport City Councillor John Florez informed the Newport City Council and City Manager and the public of his intention to resign from his seat on the City Council. The city charter was recently amended to require the remaining city councilors to appoint a new City Council member. It’s important to note that since this is a new(er) provision in the charter, there was no existing process in place to appoint a replacement.

On November 27, the Mayor’s office issued a notice informing interested applicants to apply to the City Council by December 15. On December 19 and 21 of 2017, the City Council held a meeting to interview potential candidates. The candidates were informed that they could elect to have their meetings held in an open session, all other meetings were held in an executive session. About half of the candidate interviews were in open session and about half were held in executive session over the course of the two meetings. The Newport City Council was going to meet on January 4 to vote on a new City Councillor – asserting that part of that meeting may take place in executive session. However, that meeting was postponed to January 8 due to the snowstorm.

It is my belief that the Open Meetings Act has been violated. There has never been a public discussion about the application process or criteria that would be used to fill this position. Yet somehow, an application process was created and agreed upon by the current city council members. Furthermore, the meetings held in Executive Session to interview candidates for a City Council seat were in violation of the Open Meetings Act. The Open Meetings Act was established to assure that meetings affecting the public will be made in the public. Replacement of an otherwise elected official is of critical importance to the governance of our City.  Attempting to close the meeting to the public under the guise of the exemption for job performance or physical/mental health of an applicant in no way seems to be the intention of that exemption. That exemption would appear to protect the privacy of certain employees (rightly so); however, it would in no way seem applicable to people who are applying to become a public figure.

Here are links to the online notices for the meetings as described above:

I believe that any of the candidates that were interviewed in an executive session should be required to have a public vetting and that a public meeting take place to discuss the process and criteria for the appointment. I appreciate your swift attention to this matter, especially as the Newport City Council intends to move forward with this vague process on Monday, January 8th.

This story will be updated as more information and responses are received.