PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. General Assembly is exploring the possibility of meeting remotely, as social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic is challenging legislative bodies across the state that are required to meet publicly.
House and Senate leaders issued letters to lawmakers on Monday, including new details about Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s order that Rhode Islanders should not gather in groups of 25 people or more. The House has 75 members; the Senate has 38.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello “wants you to know that our legal staff has been exploring the possibility of holding remote sessions, but there are many constitutional concerns about the accessibility to all members, staff, the public and the media,” House spokesperson Larry Berman wrote to members.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said there’s also a strong possibility that the General Assembly extends legislative work beyond the typical three-day weekly schedule, “when it is safe for members to return,” according to Senate spokesperson Greg Pare.
The debate among leadership about what to do next echoes similar conversations happening at the local level in municipalities across the state. Like the General Assembly, mayors, town managers and city and town councilors are currently in the process of putting together budgets for the next fiscal year, which begins in most places on July 1.
And the new virus that causes COVID-19, a disease that has killed more than 6,000 people worldwide, is complicating matters.
“The majority of cities and towns have cancelled all non-essential public meetings,” said Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.
“For public bodies that must meet, the League is exploring options for greater flexibility, such as remote meetings and voting, while preserving the intent of the law,” he added.
The logistics related to meeting remotely could be complicated in part because public entities are required to meet in public, giving citizens the opportunity to bear witness and provide input to the decision-making process that involves elected officials and taxpayer money.
As a result, R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha spokesperson Kristy dosReis said the state has received many questions about the Open Meetings Act and its applicability amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The inquiries have sparked discussions among some of the state’s top decision-makers, as officials think about how to conduct government business and comply with the law.
“We have been and will continue to work with stakeholders and the governor’s office on potential temporary, legal solutions and anticipate that further guidance will be provided in the near future,” dosReis said. “Public bodies should consider limiting their meetings to only those that they believe are absolutely essential to the continued operation of government during this emergency.”
The Providence City Council, for example, is planning to meet Thursday to vote on executive action in the capital city related to the COVID-19 crisis. The council will live-stream its meeting for the first time, in an effort to discourage a large number of people from needing to attend in person.
In response to the concerns, Raimondo on Monday issued an order to suspend the Open Meetings Act, allowing public bodies to start meeting either over the phone or video — but with “one very important condition.”
“You must make a provision for the public to participate,” Raimondo said.
People who are interested in participating in the meetings must have the ability to either call in or tune in to whatever platform is being used to conduct business. Raimondo also urged all public bodies without critical business in the next 30 days to postpone all meetings.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, agreed with state officials that suspending the requirement that public meetings occur in person is necessary – giving the current state of emergency. But he’s calling on government officials to ensure that they do remain accessible to the public.
“Any suspension should only be for matters that cannot be put off until the state of emergency expires, and the public and press must be able to observe, whether by phone or video,” he said.