2012-12-13 / News

Council may have made ‘minor’ mistake

Letter to first-grade class could have violated law

While a letter to a first-grade classroom commending students for not pushing one another down slides may seem innocent enough, it caused a bit of a stir at the Town Council’s Dec. 3 meeting.

“I’m a little curious because I heard a few things tonight that are unusual in my experience,” said Sav Rebecchi, who spoke during open forum. Rebecchi, who attends nearly every municipal meeting, was curious as to how each councilor agreed to sign a letter when it had never before been discussed at a council meeting. Under the state’s law on open meetings, the Town Council is forbidden to discuss any business outside of an officially posted meeting if a quorum is met.

“You agreed to write a letter because you apparently pre-voted on it?” Rebecchi wondered.

Council Vice President Mary Meagher told Rebecchi that only her and Councilor Gene Mihaly discussed the letter. She said that the two were emailing each other and decided that someone should draft a letter to Leanne Turenne’s classroom. Because a quorum wasn’t met – for a governmental body to meet a quorum in Rhode Island, a majority of the members must be involved – Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said that state law wasn’t violated.

“I think Mr. Rebecchi’s point is that he’s uncomfortable, but it’s certainly not in violation of any Open Meetings Act,” said Ruggiero at the meeting. “If two of you are talking and say, ‘I would like to write a letter,’ that’s not a violation of the Open Meetings Act. If three of you talked about it, sure. I think the point is, he’s not comfortable that the council is talking prior to the meeting.”

If it were only Mihaly and Meagher who spoke, Rebecchi inquired, then how did all five sign the letter? “So basically you’re talking action without consensus of everybody else?” he asked.

In an interview following the meeting, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said he wasn’t sure why Ruggiero didn’t consider the incident a violation of the act.

“Is it technically a violation?” asked Keiser. “I’m not sure. It sure sounds like it could be, but Peter said it is not. We’ll have to ask him.”

The Press tried to contact Ruggiero, but Keiser said that attorney-client privilege with the council keeps the solicitor from commenting on the situation.

In a follow-up interview with Meagher, she admitted that the council may have made a mistake. She said she emailed Mihaly to see if he wanted to write a response to the classroom, which he agreed to do. The letter from the Melrose Avenue students discussed a classroom activity where the kids made rules for seat belts and swimming pools.

Mihaly’s response was succinct: “Dear boys and girls: We want to thank you for sending us your thoughts on rules. We agree that the rules you identified are good and strong. We wish you a very fine school year. And again, many thanks.”

The possible violation is when Meagher and Mihaly brought it to the other three councilors prior to the meeting – therefore creating a quorum – and asking them to sign it.

“We made a mistake,” said Meagher. “Gene should have read it aloud at the meeting then we should have voted to sign it.”

The attorney general’s office doesn’t comment on any possible open meeting violation unless a complaint is made. “We can’t answer whether or not any public body violated the Open Meetings Act,” said Amy Kempe, public information offi cer for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “If a complaint comes into the office, we determine if it is even applicable. If it is, we reach out to both parties and figure out what happened. Until a complaint is made, we can’t provide an answer.”

Keiser sees no reason for a complaint. He says it’s just an innocent misstep made by a newly elected council. “It’s a minor issue,” he said.

John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island agrees. “It’s as minor a violation as there is,” said Marion, who serves as the executive director of the watchdog group. “I imagine since it’s a new council, they are just getting up to speed on the Open Meetings Act.”

Marion said that the attorney general’s office holds occasional summits to educate newly elected and appointed officials. The next summit will be held on Jan. 8 at noon at the Community College of Rhode Island campus in Lincoln.

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