WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – As taxpayers and Warwick City Council Finance Committee members worked their way through a meeting that was well into its fourth hour, everything came to a silencing halt.
The meeting, forced into remote access due to COVID-19, did not meet state open meeting law requirements.
Resident Lois Graydon was wrapping up her emotional testimony about the impact of the Bayside sewer project, which was unlucky item 13, and the last one on the agenda.
“I think this is unfair to the citizens of Bayside,” Graydon said. “And I think we are being forced to pay for mistakes that others have made in the past.”
Finance Committee Chairman Ed Ladouceur thanked Graydon for her testimony, but before continuing discussion on the resolution to issue a contract for the $20 million project, there was a 15 second pause.
“At this time, I have to defer to our city council solicitor for a technical issue that has just been brought to our attention,” Ladouceur said.
With that, the Zoom cut to William Conley who told everyone watching the four toll free numbers provided for residents to join via telephone had not been working during the three-and-a-half hour meeting.
“All the work that you’ve done tonight will have to be done over at a meeting that meets all the remote access requirements of the [governor’s] executive order,” Conley said.
Conley went on to explain access using only the computer-based app Zoom, “is not sufficient to satisfy the open meetings act pursuant to” Governor Gina Raimondo’s executive order regarding public meetings.
Finance Committee member Timothy Howe asked Conley if the committee could hold a docket session, but Conley said that was also not allowed under the executive order.
(Docket sessions are held after meetings are adjourned to allow members to introduce items for the organization’s next agenda.)
The technical issue also prompted the cancellation of Wednesday’s scheduled Zoom meeting for the entire city council.
In an email, Secretary of State spokesman Nick Domings said there have been about 6,200 public meetings since March 1.
“I checked with our Public Information office and they are aware of something like this happening only a handful of times,” Domings said. “We do not have an exact number.”
Warwick city spokesperson Emily Martineau said the problem was on Zoom’s end and involved technical issues with the toll-free number.
Ladouceur said the city IT department has done a great job during the pandemic meeting the challenges, but added technology can be problematic.
“It was an unfortunate glitch of technology for everyone including my colleagues on the Council, the Department Heads and Administrations Staff that were in attendance,” Ladouceur said.
Howe accepted the idea the meeting will have to start over from the beginning.
“It was frustrating, but, like we have done since March, we take a breath, adapt and overcome,” Howe said.
According to Ladouceur, the finance committee meeting has been rescheduled to September 21.