2006-08-10 / Front Page

Public forums allow for dialog between council and citizens

By Dotti Farrington

The public and town officials, particularly Town Council and School Committee members, can have discussions during open public forums, despite a series of disputes to the contrary during the past 18 months, according to State Attorney General Patrick Lynch.

Last week, Lynch told hundreds of public officials and others that new legislation now allows his office to clear up the issues and allow all public officials to comment on topics raised by citizens at open public forums. The new rules are spelled out in the recently published fifth edition of his office's Guide to Open Government in Rhode Island.

The advisories of his office to other towns, and especially directly to Jamestown, led many citizens and officials to grumble about the law as they tried to heed what they thought was the existing law. One or more people at last week's hearing came away with the impression that Town Councilors here and officials elsewhere were acting illegally by not responding to citizens' comments and questions.

The open forum rules last year led to an apparent lessening of public comment at council meetings in Jamestown during the past year. Lynch unveiled his new guide and interpretations of new and existing laws at the eighth annual Open Government Summit on Aug. 4.

The controversy and earlier rulings grew out of the attorney general's staff advisory in March, 2005, about the need for school committees to follow stricter rules about public notice for any discussions. Evolution of that advisory spread to interpretations that all public bodies were restricted, and that individual officials, or less than a quorum of a body could not respond to citizens at open forums.

Lynch's new guide specifies that "any or all of the members of a public body (school committees included) may respond to comments initiated by a member of the public during the open forum portion of a meeting even if the matter was not previously posted on the agenda, for informational purposes only."

The way it was

Previously, according to his office rulings last year, if council members wanted to respond, they had to vote to amend the agenda, and in the case of school committees, discussions were not allowed without scheduling another forum for specific topics and required notices given.

Some officials here and elsewhere equated the interpretations as gag orders. Not all the councilors or residents liked the lack of exchange or agreed about its being protective of the public's rights. The councilors previously allowed rather free-flowing, forums, sometimes becoming involved in the discussions or asking questions.

Many viewed last year's "nocomment" as a closing the open forums. That was especially so for residents seeking answers, confirmation or guidance about facts and procedures, and not necessarily about something on which the residents were seeking any vote or consensus.

However, some officials either embraced the rulings or at least used them to their advantage. Some avid watchers of ongoing concerns about the local landfill and putting a highway barn on the site thought the rulings were used to bar or diminish some participation in the still-unresolved issues.

Varied implications

The state advisories last year were reinforced when the town's Associate Solicitor A. Lauriston Parks advised councilors to say nothing more than "thank you" when residents spoke at open forums. Parks said he based his ruling here on the advisory from Lynch's office. Jamestown's Town Solicitor J. William W. Harsch followed up Park's ruling with a slightly less strict one that allowed one or two councilors, "but not three or more who would represent a quorum," to respond to citizens. Harsch said he didn't like the opinions issued by Lynch's office, but believed he was bound to uphold them.

Harsch has since been waging a major effort as the Republican candidate to unseat Democratic Lynch as the state attorney general. He pledged at the start of his campaign "to keep my roles as solicitor and as a candidate as clearly defined as they need to be."

New rules

In explaining the new rules at last week's summit, Lynch cautioned that the new freedom to discuss matters during open forums does not allow a board or committee action without prescribed notice about a future meeting to act on the specific topic.

Among other legislative improvements is the ability of a complaintant to go unnamed in investigations of public records violations.

It was also noted that further action is awaiting legislation that would allow people with disabilities to participate in a meeting by phone.

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