2007-03-22 / Front Page

Solicitor examining alleged council open meetings violations

By Dotti Farrington

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero is collecting data about recent executive sessions held by the Town Council regarding a site for the highway barn.

The solicitor is responding to a complaint by Raymond Iannetta of North Main Road, that some or all of the executive sessions were illegal.

Ruggiero is scheduled to present a draft of his response to the council at its meeting Monday, when some citizens are expecting an announcement about the barn site, even though Council President David Long said last week that no announcement was imminent.

Iannetta filed his complaint Feb. 14 with the office of State Attorney General Patrick Lynch. In it, he contended the executive sessions violated state law about the rights of citizens to have access to how and why officials make decisions. The council justified the executive or, "closed to the public," session on the basis of the state law allowing private talks for matters involving lawsuits or potential lawsuits.

Iannetta is a leader of the North End Concerned Citizens (NECC), formed at least six years ago, to keep the town from building a barn at or near the former town landfill, or to allow its building only with maximum safeguards to prevent contamination of private wells and groundwaters that feed the town reservoirs.

Some NECC organizers have asked the town for a promise of town water should activity at or near the landfill result in any well pollution. The town has declined to give such assurances because officials said technology cannot clearly establish sources of well pollution, at least in some cases.

NECC supporters have hired lawyers and engineers to help them in their efforts, but leaders have said over the years they do not plan to sue the town unless it violates state or federal laws. Town officials said they have been told orally and in writing that NECC as a group, or some leaders as individuals, are poised to file a lawsuit if the landfill or the abutting Lot 47 is named as the barn site, even with full governmental oversights.

Harsch triggered complaint

Iannetta tied his complaint primarily to remarks by J. William W. Harsch, a few days before Harsch resigned Feb. 16 as town solicitor. Harsch told councilors that many talks and decisions in executive sessions were illegal.

In his parting comments, Harsch listed as illegal the council's consensus in executive session on naming Ruggiero to succeed him, as well as several talks on possible barn sites not subject to lawsuits, or even potential lawsuits.

Councilors defended their right to review in private the public interviews they conducted with solicitor candidates, and specified they took no vote, only came to a consensus, with Councilor William Kelly reporting that he compromised his first choice, for Harsch, as an effort toward making the selection unanimous. Councilors defended closed session talks about the barn mainly by claiming that Harsch himself attended or took part in those discussions without reporting any possible illegality or conflicts about the sessions.

At a Feb. 16 session, Harsch referred to one or more recent closed sessions, allegedly not even posted, at the municipal golf course country club, where town offices are being housed while the new town hall is being built. Councilors said all their meetings were posted properly.

Allowed sessions

The basis for executive sessions on topics over which lawsuits might be filed was detailed in mid-2005 by the offices of Harsch and Lynch.

The Rhode Island Open Meetings Act specifies that executive sessions - meetings not open to the public - can be conducted for certain reasons, including cases involving actual litigations or lawsuits. The law does not specify potential lawsuits.

When officials invoked the right to conduct executive sessions or to not comment in public meetings on topics - especially the barn - that might become the subject of lawsuits, some citizens raised concerns about the source of authority for such secrets.

The office of the state attorney general cited several advisories it issued in the past 17 years dealing with the right to closed discussion if litigation is anticipated, even if never pursued. The state rulings upheld the right to hold closed meetings to discuss strategy to defend against or to avoid possible litigation.

The state cited a 2004 ruling involving Tiverton, and several rulings within a 1997 ruling involving Jamestown, about the right of public bodies to have closed meetings if lawsuits might be filed.

The attorney general's office ruled that Tiverton had the right to conduct talks about the town budget in closed session "not only to discuss pending litigation but also to discuss reasonably anticipated litigation and strategy."

The Tiverton case, with attorney Carolyn Mannis as its town solicitor at that time, cited the 1997 ruling involving Jamestown, when it conducted closed meetings about extensions of water mains to a property off Hamilton Avenue. During the recent interviews for a new town solicitor, Mannis, who is now the island's solicitor for criminal prosecutions, provided town officials here with her opinion that the interviews could be held in secret session.

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