Having just come away from court with a brutal ruling undoing some of its recent managerial actions, the East Greenwich Town Council should be taking every step it can to make it impossible for the powerful forces arrayed against it to gain traction with future complaints. When it comes to undoing the court’s action by redoing everything that Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl reversed, that would mean being overly detailed in every particular.
However, failing to be overly detailed is a far cry from being “clearly illegal,” which is the clearly absurd accusation of a group of left-leaning organizations assembled under the name, ACCESS/RI, as amplified by Bob Plain on RI Future. The group’s complaint is that the Town Council has scheduled a meeting for tonight with the following on the agenda:
(2) New Business (Discussion/Action)
(a) Appointment of Gayle Corrigan as Town Manager
(b) Ratification of Town Manager Term Sheet retroactive to July 1, 2017.
(c) Ratification of all actions taken by Gayle Corrigan as Town Manager from June 19, 2017 – November 14, 2017
In the opinion of ACCESS/RI, this agenda fails because:
§ 42-46-6(b) of the Open Meetings Act requires “a statement specifying the nature of the business to be discussed” as part of the public notice. In Judge McGuirl’s decision, she cited as precedent two major Supreme Court of Rhode Island cases interpreting this provision in the OMA: Tanner v. Town Council of East Greenwich 880 A.2d 784, 792 (R.I. 2005) and Anolik v. Zoning Bd. of Review of Newport 64 A.3d 1171, 1176 (R.I. 2013). Judge McGuirl’s decision admonished your Town Council for posting an agenda item that was more deficient than the notice in the precedential Tanner case. Tonight’s agenda item, we submit, is even less compliant with the statute.
This assertion disappointingly skirts the facts of the law. The key measure of compliance isn’t the amount of detail, but the notice of what actions will be taken on what. In the precedential cases and in the violations of which McGuirl found the East Greenwich Town Council guilty, the problem was that the public had no way of knowing that a vote would be taken, or taken on a particular topic. When the council appointed Gayle Corrigan as the Acting Town Manager, for example, it did so in an executive session noticed as discussing a different personnel matter.
In general, with the Open Meetings Act, detail is only necessary to the extent that ambiguity appears intended to mislead the public. For tonight’s meeting, it is entirely clear what the Town Council intends to do. There is no ambiguity at all. The council would certainly help itself to overcome objections if it were to present an itemized list — as complete as possible — of Corrigan’s actions that it intends to “ratify” at the meeting, but agendas rarely include that level of detail.
The bottom line is that public notice has been appropriately served to anybody with an interest in anything that Corrigan has done that they ought to be present at the meeting. Just as town councils don’t consider it necessary to vote on every action that their town managers take, the East Greenwich council isn’t obligated to define every particular action of which it approves retroactively. And just as anybody who disagrees with a manager’s action can bring that particular item to a council’s attention for reconsideration, so too can anybody who has disagreed with anything Corrigan has done bring that item to the council tonight.
If enough concerns come forward, perhaps the council will dial back its ratification, which would still be adequately covered by its agenda. Of course, at the other extreme, the council may be unreasonably dismissive of residents who attempt to object to individual concerns, even declining to listen to them, but that’s a political matter not covered by the OMA
What ACCESS/RI appears to be doing is spinning legalese into a specter of impossible compliance, thereby abusing open meeting laws in order to make it difficult for the duly elected officials of East Greenwich to take legal actions with which left-leaning special interests disagree. That’s not in the spirit of the Open Meetings Act; it’s not even in the spirit of representative democracy.