Raising the “black curtain”
The right to know what goes on behind closed doors on matters that affect the public turned out to be one of the first topics the Town Council discussed with new Town Manager Ed Roberge.
It came up during a discussion about the town’s goals and priorities, which turned into a dialogue about the Council’s approach to closed sessions. Some members of the Council questioned the way its closed session meetings are being conducted, and what is discussed in those meetings, including what the town decides to litigate.
What can be discussed in closed session is dictated by the the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA). Very generally, the OMA allows closed meetings for discussions on job performance by a public employee, litigation, concerns for public safety, allegations of civil or criminal misconduct, acquisition of property for public purposes, discussions pertaining to prospective business relocation, investment of public funds, disciplinary hearings, and collective bargaining discussions.
In 2017, closed session items were included in nearly half of the Town Council’s meeting schedule.
Out of 41 Town Council meetings and work session scheduled last year, the Council went into closed session 19 times to discuss 29 items listed on published agendas; 17 closed meeting sessions were held during regular meetings, while two were included in work sessions. The Town Manager selection process and professional contract occupied eight closed sessions, and for five of those meetings the minutes were sealed by the Council. McGinnes versus the Town (in response to the purchase of BIPCo stock) garnered five closed sessions; two were sealed. The Rhode Island Fast Ferry case was the published topic for four closed sessions; three were sealed. Other cited items included discussions on the Utility District (four closed meeting sessions), former Town Manager Jim Lathrop’s severance (discussed in closed session three times), and collective bargaining (two closed discussions). The minutes from 17 of those 29 items have been sealed, which means the contents are not available to the public.
Second Warden André Boudreau said that members of the public should have a say in what is litigated and discussed in closed session. He also felt the public should be informed about what is being discussed behind closed doors.
“A lot of times we go into closed session, and the public knows nothing about what we’re talking about, or even the issue,” said Boudreau. “I feel we should tell the public something because it’s their money that we’re spending with this litigation.”
In response, First Warden Ken Lacoste said, “I think the issues are indicated in the agendas for the meetings.” As First Warden, Lacoste is responsible for drafting the Council’s agenda.
“There may be some issues that the public does not want us to litigate that we’ve been litigating,” said Boudreau.
The topic came up after the Council discussed its top priorities, with a large part of the dialogue centered around the need for installing a broadband network for the town’s main buildings, such as Town Hall, the Police Station, Medical Center, Block Island School, and Island Free Library. An hour into the discussion, Councilor Chris Willi said that he thought members of the public should be informed about what is discussed in closed session.
“If it’s not going to hurt letting the public know what we are doing, then we should let them know,” said Willi. “There needs to be a clarification about what is public information, and what’s not public information.” Councilor Martha Ball agreed with Willi, saying that the issue needs to be clarified.
Willi said former First Warden Kim Gaffett has attended meetings and been denied an update by the Town Council regarding closed session items.
“If we could come out of closed session, and tell the public what we’ve been talking about, that would provide them with an update,” said Councilor Sven Risom, who noted that when the Town Council goes into closed session it’s like throwing up a “black curtain.”
Ball said the Town Council needs to discuss the matter with the Town Solicitor, to which Risom quipped that the Council would need to go into closed session to discuss the matter.
As for goals and priorities, Town Council members seemed in agreement that the top priorities are installing a broadband network; the stock purchase of the Block Island Power Company, and its transition to a Utility District; and the rental and affordable housing situation. The Council noted that the impending West Beach Revetment project, and the Mill Pond Bridge renovations, are priorities, as well.
Lacoste suggested that Roberge provide the Town Council with weekly updates concerning the town’s projects and issues. Roberge said that he thought “weekly reports were a useful tool. I can provide the Town Council with status reports as we move forward.”
The Town Council also discussed the need for greater outreach into neighboring, and/or similar communities, like Westerly and Narragansett, to develop beneficial relationships. Roberge said that as City Engineer for the City of Concord, New Hampshire, outreach was an invaluable tool. “That’s how we got things done, by reaching out to other communities,” he said. “I will do that.”
The next Town Council meeting is Monday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.