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Town's open meeting notice on "interviews" too vague

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   RHODE ISLAND   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   July 26, 2005

Town’s open meeting notice on “interviews” too vague

  • A town council unintentionally violated the state open meetings law by taking votes for positions, but its later corrective measures lessened its liability for attorney fees, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.

July 26, 2005  ·   A town council violated the notice requirements of Rhode Island’s open meetings law when it publicly announced that it would interview zoning commission candidates at an upcoming meeting and then proceeded at that meeting to vote some of them into office, the state Supreme Court ruled July 18.

Although the court commended the town for later convening a properly called re-enactment of the first meeting, it held that the town still is liable for the violation.

The public notice at issue listed “interviews” as the only item on the East Greenwich Town Council’s Oct. 23, 2001, agenda. Rhode Island’s open meetings law requires public notice of government meetings, including a “statement specifying the nature of the business to be discussed.”

The word “interviews” does not “reasonably describe the purpose of the meeting or the action proposed to be taken as including ‘voting,'” Justice Paul A. Suttell wrote for the unanimous court.

In affirming a lower court decision, Suttell rejected the council’s argument that it had mooted the lawsuit by announcing a second meeting on Nov. 26, 2001, when it again voted the appointments in question. Citizen Frederick S. Tanner sued the town the day after the second meeting.

The November “voluntary renotice and reappointment” did not “undo” the council’s earlier violation of the law, wrote Suttell. While the curative effect might mean that Tanner is no longer eligible for injunctive relief, the statute allows for civil fines or the recovery of attorney fees, Suttell wrote.

The court reduced the lower court’s award of attorney fees, however, from $11,194 to $1,500, reflecting the town’s good faith belief that it had not violated the open meetings act and its measures to correct its mistake, Sutell said. Fines were never levied.

(Tanner v. Town Council; Requester Counsel: Robert D. Wieck; Providence, R.I.)RL

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