PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee has signed a new executive order allowing public bodies to continue meeting remotely for another month, but no longer requiring them to provide remote access if they hold in-person meetings.
McKee signed the new order Friday. His previous executive order, which allowed for remote meetings and required remote access, was signed in January and will be allowed to expire on Monday.
The new order continues to allow public bodies to meet remotely by telephone or video calls if they choose, which is not typically allowed under the R.I. Open Meetings Act.
But the latest order says that if public bodies meet in person and allow the public to attend in person, they do not need to also provide remote access, though they can choose to do so. Only virtual or hybrid meetings must provide remote access to the public.
Remote open meetings were first allowed via an executive order that former Gov. Gina Raimondo signed at the start of the pandemic. McKee renewed the order repeatedly until last summer, when he allowed it to expire.
Public bodies after that time were required to meet in person, though they could choose to allow remote access for the public, which many had become accustomed to during the pandemic. The remote access requirement was revived in January’s order that expires Monday.
The new order will be in effect until March 19, when McKee can renew it or let it expire.
Spokesperson Alana O’Hare said the changes were made as a result of input from municipalities and in consideration of improving COVID numbers.
Open government groups quickly slammed the new rules.
“This is a step backward for government transparency,” said John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “The pandemic forced state and local governments to innovate and provide virtual access to, and participation in, public meetings. The public benefited greatly from that requirement. Many public bodies saw drastically higher attendance. Today’s executive order is a partial return to a pre-covid status quo, but that status quo was not a good one.”
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said remote access is an equity issue.
“The General Assembly needs to enact a permanent policy that guarantees virtual access and participation, particularly for the most powerful public bodies,” Marion added.
“During the last two years we have seen the benefits of remote access and participation for those unable to attend in-person meetings,” Silverman said. “Under this order, those concerned about COVID and choosing not to attend meetings can be shut out entirely. Those with disabilities, family commitments, work obligations and other conflicts can also be denied access. Remote participation is not only about safety, but also about equity.”
But municipalities have expressed concerns about of the costs of providing remote access, according to testimony from the R.I. League of Cities and Towns before a House committee on this topic earlier this week.
“Our members prefer to be able to have the option to offer hybrid or virtual meetings based on their
respective staffing capacities and technological capabilities,” the League’s policy director Jordan Day said in written testimony. “Municipalities have continued to report supply chain challenges with procuring supplies, including the equipment needed for the hybrid meetings required under the legislation.”
Attorney General Peter Neronha, whose office enforces the Open Meetings Act, said Friday he favors requiring public bodies to meet in person but also ensuring remote access for citizens so that people can “see their government in action.”
“I think public officials ought to be in the room, provided the health care concerns aren’t there,” Neronha said during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “I do think personally that making that technology available to the public, so you can look in on a meeting, hopefully share your points by using technology, would be a good thing.”
This story will be updated.