Citing a "knowing or willful" violation of the Open Meetings Act (OMA), Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin today filed a lawsuit in Providence County Superior Court against the West Warwick Town Council.
The lawsuit alleges the West Warwick Town Council committed a knowing or willful violation of the OMA when the Town Council met on June 4, 2012 despite posting notice of that meeting a mere seven minutes before the start of the meeting.
The lawsuit is the result of a complaint filed with the Office of Attorney General by West Warwick resident Adam Satchell, which alleged that both the West Warwick Town Council and the West Warwick School Committee violated the Open Meetings Act when the two held a joint meeting on June 4, 2012 without posting notice of the meeting at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting as required under the OMA.
The OMA requires that all public bodies provide written notice of their meetings within 48 hours of the meeting (R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-46-6(b)). The notice shall include the date the notice was posted, the date, time, and place of the meeting, and a statement specifying the nature of the business to be discussed.
The OMA also contains an "emergency meeting provision" that allows a meeting to convene with less than 48 hours notice when it is "necessary to address an unexpected occurrence that requires immediate action to protect the public" (R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-46-6(c)). If an emergency meeting is called "a meeting notice and agenda shall be posted as soon as practicable and, upon meeting, the public body shall state for the record and minutes why the matter must be addressed in less than 48 hours."
In a previously released finding (OM 12-30), the Office of Attorney General found that both parties did violate the Open Meetings Act when the June 4, 2012 meeting was convened with notice posted to the Secretary of State's website seven minutes prior to the start of the meeting. Further, the Office found that neither party provided necessary proof for the meeting to be deemed an "emergency meeting."
The Office of Attorney General investigated the matter further to determine if the parties committed a knowing and willful violation (OM 12-30B). Based on evidence presented by legal counsel for the West Warwick School Committee and affidavits by school committee members, the Office determined that the School Committee did not knowingly or willfully violate OMA.
The Office, however, found that the Town Council did commit a knowing or willful violation. First, the Office found that the Town Council put forward no evidence that the meeting rose to the level of an emergency. Further, by its own admission, the Town Council knew it had failed to post timely notice, yet the meeting was still held. Based on the evidence provided, the Office of Attorney General concluded the Town Council was cognizant of an appreciable possibility that it may be subject to the statutory requirements of OMA and it failed to take steps reasonably calculated to resolve the doubt.
The Office further alleges that the Town Council violated the OMA when its members met and discussed through the use of electronic communication, including telephone communication and telephone conference, public business outside the public purview.
"In times of fiscal emergencies and public protection, it is important that government have the flexibility to meet, discuss and take action on issues vital to a community's well-being. In all instances, however, it is just as important that public bodies do their best to inform taxpayers of those actions. It is incumbent upon public bodies to be open and transparent to the citizenry, and the burden to inform the public rightfully falls on the public body," said Attorney General Kilmartin.
The maximum penalty under the OMA is $5,000 for each knowing or willful violation.