Council violates open meetings law before taking office
RHODE ISLAND–Members-elect of the Newport City Council violated the spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Act when they met several times in closed sessions at the members’ homes, the state’s attorney general held in late December.
The official opinion came in response to a complaint by Newport Daily News Editor David Offer, who discovered that in November 1995 the council-elect had met in a “series of closed, unannounced, unposted meetings in the homes of council members to discuss and plan for city operations after January 1, 1996.”
The members characterized the meetings as “organizational and goal-setting discussions,” but the group admitted to conducting an “informal election” of the new council chairman.
The council-elect responded to Offer’s complaint by asserting that it was “not a public body, as defined by the [Open Meetings] Act, and, therefore, no meeting, as defined by the Act, has taken place.”
Attorney General Jeffrey Pine noted that it was unclear whether the term “public body,” as defined by the Open Meetings Act, applied to members-elect of city councils. But “it is black letter law,” Pine observed, that ambiguous statutes must be read “so as to effectuate the legislative intent behind its enactment.”
The state official pointed out that the Open Meetings Act contained strong language evincing the legislature’s intent that the Act be interpreted “most favorably to the public.”
Pine said he would take no legal action against the members because the issue was one of first impression and the Council-elect had not “willfully” violated the Act. He warned the council that any future violations would be met with fines for willful violations. (Op. R.I. Att’y Gen. No. 95-12 (1995))