Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin today announced that Superior Court Justice Joseph Montalbano found in favor of the State in the civil lawsuit filed against the Manville Fire District alleging the Fire District willfully or knowingly violated the state's Open Meetings Act ("OMA") when it failed to hold its board meetings in a handicapped accessible location on multiple occasions, despite being warned by the Office of Attorney General that holding public meetings in a location that was not handicapped accessible violated the OMA.
The Office of Attorney General filed the lawsuit against the Manville Fire District in June 2012, citing three separate violations for holding meetings in locations that were not handicapped accessible.
The State filed the lawsuit on behalf on Mr. Marcel DesMarais who filed a complaint with the Office of Attorney General on August 22, 2011 claiming he was denied access to an August 10, 2011 meeting. After an investigation, the Office of Attorney General issued a finding dated November 8, 2011, citing the Fire District for being in violation of OMA for holding the meeting on the 2nd floor of the Manville fire station, which was not handicapped accessible. As part of the November 2011 finding the Office expressly instructed the Fire District to conduct future meetings at or in locations that were handicapped accessible.
Thereafter, on March 13, 2012, Mr. DesMarais filed another complaint alleging that he was denied access to meetings on December 14, 2011, January 11, 2012 and February 8, 2012, because the Fire District continued to hold its public meetings on the second floor of the fire station despite the Attorney General's November 8, 2011 finding and directive. After investigation, the Office of Attorney General again found that the Fire District violated the OMA for continuing to conduct meetings in a location that was not handicapped accessible and filed an OMA lawsuit in the Superior Court alleging that by virtue of the Attorney General's November 8, 2011 finding, the Fire District knowingly or willfully violated the OMA when it held its December 14, 2011, January 11, 2012, and February 8, 2012 meetings in a location that was not accessible to persons with physical disabilities.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the Office of Attorney General filed a motion with the Court seeking to prohibit the Manville Fire District from continuing to hold public meetings in non- handicapped accessible locations. On July 9, 2012, the Office and the Manville Fire District entered a consent order in which the Fire District agreed to hold future meetings in a location that was handicapped accessible. All subsequent meetings have been held in a handicapped accessible location.
"One of the very basic tenets of our Open Meetings Act is the right for all citizens to have access to public meetings, no matter their physical limitations," said Attorney General Kilmartin. "For a public body to continue to hold meeting in locations that excluded person with disabilities is especially egregious."
Justice Montalbano set a hearing date of December 6, 2013 for the determination of imposition of fines against the Fire District. Michael W. Field, Assistant Attorney General and chief of the Open Government Unit, argued the case before the Court.