2009-11-19 / Front Page

Concerns raised over caucus by new council members

By Jeff McDonough

Questions are being asked about whether a Sunday, Nov. 15, meeting attended by four members of the newly elected Town Council violated the spirit of the state Open Meetings Act.

Labeled as a “caucus” of the Democratic Town Committee, the meeting was attended by new council members Mike Schnack, Mike White, Bob Bowen and Bill Murphy. State Rep. Deb Ruggiero, who chairs the Democratic Town Committee, also attended the meeting.

Clarke Westall, a native islander who is retired after serving 32 years with the Jamestown Police Department, said he and his wife were having dinner with another couple on Sunday evening at the Portuguese American Citizens Club. That’s when he saw the four council members and the state representative gathered in a side room.

“They were meeting in the room with the pool table. I didn’t think that was right, so I went in and sat down,” Westall said. “They started yelling at me, telling me I had to leave the room.”

Westall said the shouting continued and when it was clear that he wasn’t going to leave the room, the group left the PAC Club. Westall said he believes that all town business should be discussed publicly and in the open, not behind closed doors.

According to the Attorney General’s “Guide to Open Government in Rhode Island,” a caucus session to elect party leaders is not a “public body,” provided the caucus does not address city or town council business.

So was council business discussed?

Town council member Mike White, who was re-elected to the council, said he sought an opinion from the town solicitor before the caucus meeting. White said that at the caucus, the four council members discussed the leadership of the town council. “We could not agree” on the leadership, White added. “Nothing was resolved.”

The group also discussed committee appointments, he said.

White said the group met in “the backroom” of the PAC Club.

“I hate to use that term. I wish it had been the front room,” he said.

“I do have to admit that on appearance, I had difficulty with the meeting,” White said, adding that he wasn’t planning to participate in future caucus meetings. “This is the first one I’ve participated in. We didn’t do that the first time I was elected. We all talked individually.”

White said a couple of people came in and sat down about “five minutes” after the caucus started Sunday evening. “They became verbally abusive,” he added.

White said the group then left the PAC Club and sat on the lawn at Ruggiero’s house.

Mike Schnack, who was elected council president Monday evening, told the Press that he had checked with the town solicitor beforehand about the legality of a caucus meeting and was given the green light. “We were not meeting as the town council, but were meeting as the Democratic party,” Schnack said.

Other than Ruggiero, there were no other party members at the meeting, he said.

“Deb Ruggiero called the meeting,” Schnack said, adding that Ruggiero presented an update from the General Assembly and challenged the council members with a lot of “yada yada yada.”

“We were careful about the meeting. We didn’t discuss town business and did not make any decisions. In a nutshell, we think the meeting was legal,” Schnack said. “We wanted some idea of where people stood. Basically, that was it. Some people didn’t stand anywhere.”

Town council member Bob Bowen said on Monday that he and the other three council members discussed who they would choose as the council president and vice president, and who would be appointed as council liaison to the various town committees.

“I understood the meeting was legal because it was called by the party chairman,” Bowen said. “The idea for the caucus was to discuss leadership issues.”

Town council member Ellen Winsor, who ran as an independent, was not invited to the meeting of the four Democratic council members.

“Excluding one of the five newly elected town council members from the initial decision-making does not get the town council off on the right intellectual and emotional tone for a new collective governing body,” she said Tuesday. “We are a one mile-wide island and we all have to work together. I don’t care about any political science theories that technically they feel they had a right to do what they did.”

“I hope this doesn’t continue as we go forward,” Winsor added.

Town council member Bill Murphy was questioned about the planned caucus meeting last week and was asked if the press was invited to the meeting. Murphy said the meeting would not be open to the public and was legal because it was not covered by the state’s open meetings law.

“Three of us are not sworn into office yet, so we can do anything we want,” he said.

However, upon reviewing recent findings that were emailed to the Jamestown Press by the state Attorney General’s office, this does not appear to be the case.

In a finding dated March, 2007 of DePatie vs. the Charlestown Town Council, the state Attorney General says the Open Meetings Act “applies to members-elect following an election.”

“This department has consistently held that members-elect of a public body are subject to the provisions of the OMA,” the A.G.’s finding further stated.

Former council member Barbara Szepatowski said she is a member of the Democratic Town Committee. “I asked if I could attend the meeting and was told I was not allowed,” she said Tuesday. “I was greatly saddened to see that the Democratic Party was more important than democracy.”

Former council member Bill Kelly said he thought the caucus meeting was wrong. “Combined with the anonymous letter, which undercut the election, and deals being made as to who the council president is going to be, which started with the last council, unfortunately it seems we are in step with the rest of Rhode Island’s political doings,” he said.

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