2007-12-20 / Front Page

Lynch dismisses open meetings complaints

By Tom Shevlin

The attorney general's office has determined that town councilors did not violate the state's Open Meetings Act (OMA) by entering into executive session last year.

In two separate complaints, Raymond Iannetta, of North Main Road, and Patrick Bolger, of Fore Royal Court, alleged that councilors violated the OMA for over one year by meeting in executive session to discuss the siting of the highway barn. The complaints centered around meetings held between Aug. 15, 2006 and Feb. 15, 2007. During that time, the report indicated councilors met to discuss the highway barn issue under the litigation provision nine times in 2006 and another three times in 2007.

Iannetta and Bolger had been vocal opponents of placing the highway barn on the north end.

Because the OMA complaints contained identical allegations against the Town Council, the attorney general's office treated the complaints as one.

In the decision, written by Special Assistant Attorney General Adam J. Sholes, the attorney general's office found no basis for pursuing any legal action against the council.

Both Iannetta and Bolger claimed that the council had adjourned to executive session citing litigation matters without pertinent litigation at hand. However, as the attorney general's decision finds, Iannetta's own emails posed a "clear and present threat of litigation."

"[T]o date our group has spent $140,000 and...I'm afraid the battle to put the barn on the north end is going to go on for a very, very long time," Iannetta wrote. "You can rest assured that our challenges will not be frivolous in the eyes of the law and will be appealed to the highest courts if need be."

The complaints, according to the decision, were filed, in part, by concern over comments that were reported in the Press by former Town Solicitor J. William W. Harsch.

"On this issue, it is clear that discussions that included reducing litigation exposure, the likelihood of success in litigation matters and reviewing an opponent's legal theories were appropriate for executive sessions and we find no violation," the report read.

According to R.I. Gen. Laws 42-46-5(a)(2), public bodies such as a town council, may enter into executive session on matters "pertaining to collective bargaining or litigation."

The purpose of the OMA is to ensure that citizens may endure the deliberations of public offi- cials and be informed of the decisions that affect public policy.

By a majority vote, a public body may call a closed meeting to discuss personnel matters, collective bargaining or litigation, security matters, investigations into civil or criminal misconduct, and the sale or acquisition of real estate.

In the letter dated Nov. 28, Sholes indicated that he had received a "substantive response" from the town, including affidavits from Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, former Town Council President David Long, and Town Clerk Arlene Petit.

Bolger was satisfied with the decision. "I think they did a very thorough review," he said. "The issue that was new to me" he continued, "was that town councilors could enter into executive session based on pending or likely litigation, rather than just ongoing or instigated litigation.

Bolger said that he appreciated the timeliness of the attorney general's review, and expressed his belief in open government. "The more meetings that are open, the better," Bolger said.

Long was pleased with the attorney general's decision. "I'm glad to be vindicated...I'm glad that they got it done so quickly," the former council president said.

Current Town Council President Julio DiGiando echoed Long's reactions.

"It's important that people understand that we did nothing wrong," said DiGiando, who served as council vice president during the time of the allegations.

Keiser agreed, saying that the executive sessions had convened on the advice of counsel and the council had been diligent not to stray from executive session matters.

Despite the favorable ruling, the attorney general's office urged the town to maintain an open and transparent process. "Despite our conclusion, we wish to stress our decision should not be read to mean that the entire process of the Town Council's decision should be shielded from the public's eyes," Sholes wrote. "(B)oilerplate statements indicating that executive sessions were convened due to a threat of litigation, by itself, will not suffice. Likewise, any vote from the Town Council taken in executive session should be disclosed in accordance with the OMA."

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