2010-11-11 / Front Page

Controversy surrounds sealed records

By Phil Zahodiakin

A request to unseal the minutes of four executive sessions held by the 2001 Town Council was the most controversial issue addressed by the current councilors during their meeting on Nov. 1.

The minutes from executive sessions, which address sensitive issues, are not publicly available unless a Council decides that the transcript of a discussion could be released without violating confidentiality agreements – like those in legal settlements or personnel disputes.

Jamestown resident Pat Bolger has been requesting executive session minutes from April 23, April 24 and May 24. In remarks directed to the councilors – Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and Wyatt Brochu, who was sitting in for Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero – Bolger said the minutes could shed additional light on the reasons for the 2001 rollback of a mooring fee increase.

Bolger suspects that the 2001 Council voted to roll back the mooring fees solely to avoid a lawsuit alleging that Jamestown had increased the fees beyond the level necessary to operate its harbor programs, thereby imposing an allegedly illegal “tax” on the boaters paying for moorings.

Bolger wants the records unsealed because, in his view, Jamestown taxpayers may have been “cheated out of $600,000” if the town relied on that amount of property tax revenue for various purposes when the money could have been provided through mooring fees.

Keiser, however, said that unsealing the records would be “easier said than done. Peter [Ruggiero] has looked at Rhode Island law, and the attorney general’s advisory opinions, and he learned that there’s very little in the law or advisories to provide guidance. So, this is a work in progress.”

Keiser added that granting Bolger’s request would raise a policy question for the town. “Would we be opening ‘Pandora’s Box,’” Keiser said, “and leaving ourselves open to requests for unsealing records that go back years?”

Councilman Mike White said that a member of the 1992 council recently told him that “they set up a procedure to review and release [requested] records. All the council members went through [requested] records to identify releasable minutes, and, if all five councilors agreed that a record was releasable, it was released. But the vote had to be unanimous.”

In response to suggestions that Keiser and Ruggiero review the records requested by Bolger, and advise the council – in an executive session – on their suitability for release, Brochu said, “I’d be concerned about tasking the solicitor and administrator with a review of records that are not public records because there isn’t any standard for such a review.”

The current councilors don’t believe that the 2001 council voted on a “deal” during any of the executive sessions in question. As Council President Mike Schnack observed, “If a vote was taken it wouldn’t have been legal if the vote wasn’t [subsequently] disclosed.”

Councilman Bill Murphy said he opposed releasing the executive session minutes because the transcript could hypothetically be used against the town if the litigation, which was never formally dropped, is reinstituted in response to the pending change in mooring fees.

Given Murphy’s opposition, and the apparent lack of enthusiasm among other councilors to unseal the records, it is unclear if there will be any additional effort to open the requested minutes.

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