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AG: Schools violated Open Meetings Act

January 14, 2012

PAWTUCKET — Based on a complaint brought by a former School Committee member, the Attorney General's Office found the Pawtucket School Committee to be in violation of the Open Meetings Act when it failed to report the outcome of an April 12, 2011 executive session vote on the teachers' contract.
A second OMA complaint lodged by the same individual about being denied access to a School Committee meeting on Oct. 15 due to a locked door was also upheld as a violation. However, two other complaints, one about being initially denied access to an October 14 meeting and another concerning whether the elected clerk was present at that meeting to take minutes were not found to be OMA violations, according to a recent decision.
Both complaints were brought by city resident Joseph C. Knight, who served on the School Committee for one term, from 2008 to 2010.
In a Jan. 9, 2012 letter to Knight from Lisa Pinsonneault, Special Assistant Attorney General, she informed the former school board member that the investigation into his complaint was complete. She referenced his letter dated Nov. 29, 2011 in which he alleged that the School Committee violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA) when it failed to report the outcome of the April 12, 2011 executive session vote.
Pinsonneault referred to a response to the department's inquiry from the School Committee's legal counsel, Vickie J. Bejma, in which she stated that there was a question about whether the vote taken in executive session had ever been reported out to the public. That vote had extended a “firm offer” to the Pawtucket Teachers' Alliance for a collective bargaining agreement. The Pawtucket Teachers' Alliance accepted that firm offer and the Pawtucket School Committee voted upon the final contract in public session on April 25, 2011.
Bejma told Pinsonneault that after a review of the Pawtucket School Committee's minutes, it appeared that the vote of April 12, 2011 regarding the “firm offer” was never reported out to the public. She conceded that this action should have been completed once the firm offer was accepted and the final contract was publicly entered into on April 25, 2011, as there was no longer any negotiation strategy that required confidentiality. She wrote, “This failure to report this vote was a regrettable oversight on the part of the Committee, and will be corrected at its next regular meeting.”
Pinsonneault noted that the Department had received a supplemental response from Bejma on Dec. 28, 2011 in which she indicated that the April 12, 2011 vote was reported out at the Dec. 13, 2011 School Committee meeting. She further noted that the School Committee intends to maintain a log of executive session votes that have not been voted out pursuant to Rhode Island General Law 42-46-4(b). The log, Bejema wrote, will be reviewed on a regular basis to determine whether the need for secrecy no longer exists, and the vote should be reported out. She added, “We trust that through this system, there will be no further oversights.”
In her letter to Knight, Pinsonneault noted that R.I.G.L. 42-46-4(b) provides that a public body must disclose all votes taken in executive session, but allows a public body not to disclose a vote during the time period in which the disclosure of the vote would jeopardize any strategy, negotiation or investigation undertaken pursuant to discussions conducted under R.I.G.L. 42-46-5(a) (such as collective bargaining.)
Pinsonneault wrote that since the “firm offer” voted on at the April 12, 2011 meeting was accepted by the teachers' union and the School Committee voted on the final contact in public at its April 25, 2011 meeting, any strategy, negotiation or investigation discussed during executive session was no longer in jeopardy. “As such, the vote should have been disclosed at its April 25, 2011 meeting and the School Committee's failure to do so was a violation of the OMA,” Pinsonneault stated.
Pinsonneault added upon the finding of an OMA violation, the Attorney General may file a complaint on behalf of the complainant in Superior Court against the public body. The court may issue injunctive relief and/or may impose a civil fine not exceeding $5,000 against a public body or any of its members for a willful or knowing violation.
However, she told Knight that, “in this case, we find neither remedy appropriate.” With the School Committee acknowledging its action was an oversight, and then disclosing the vote at its Dec. 13 meeting, there was no need for injunctive relief. The office also found no evidence that the violation was willful or knowing. “Nonetheless,” Pinsonneault wrote, “This finding serves as notice to the School Committee that its actions violated the OMA and this finding may serve as notice in a similar future situation of a willful or knowing violation.”
A second OMA complaint that had been brought by Knight alleged that the School Committee denied him access to its Oct. 14, 2011 and Oct. 15, 2011 meetings because the doors were locked and no one answered the security door buzzer. While Knight eventually gained access to the Oct. 14 meeting, he said he did not see the School Committee clerk present to take the meeting minutes and included that as part of his complaint.
In a Dec. 14, 2011 letter to Knight from Stacey Morris, Special Assistant Attorney, she notified him that the investigation into these complaints had been completed. She informed him that since he was able to eventually gain access to the Oct. 14, 2011 meeting, he was not aggrieved for purpose of the OMA.
Morris wrote, however, that the Department concluded that the School Committee did violate the OMA when it denied him access to the Oct. 15, 2011 meeting. She wrote that although it was the School Committee's main contention that the individual monitoring the buzzer did not hear it when Knight arrived at the building, “the School Committee is required under the OMA to make sure its meetings are open and accessible to the public.”
Morris told Knight that while the Attorney General may initiate suit in Superior Court, the Department found no evidence that the School Committee knowingly or willfully violated the OMA. Moreover, she wrote, “injunctive relief is also not appropriate in this case since the minutes for the Oct. 15, 2011 meeting do not reveal any vote taken by the School Committee.”
Morris advised Knight that while the Attorney General will not file suit in this matter, nothing in the OMA precludes an individual from pursuing an OMA complaint in the Superior Court.


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