McKee signs order allowing remote gov’t. meetings during COVID spike

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee on Thursday signed an executive order that will allow elected officials and other individuals to participate remotely in meetings of government bodies, resurrecting a policy that had been in place earlier in the pandemic

McKee’s office tweeted a photo of him signing the order late Thursday morning. The text of the order says public bodies are now allowed to meet using “telephonic or electronic communication,” but must “make provisions to ensure public access.”

The order will remain in effect until Feb. 4 unless it is renewed for a longer period of time.

The open government coalition ACCESS/RI and a number of municipal officials had urged McKee to provide the authorization for remote meetings as COVID-19 cases soar across Rhode Island. The East Providence City Council was among the entities forced to cancel a scheduled meeting this week after members tested positive for the virus.

Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act usually requires public bodies such as city councils and school boards to meet in person and in public. But in 2020 former Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order suspending parts of that law so meetings could take place online or on the phone — with public access — during the pandemic.

McKee, who succeeded Raimondo in March, allowed the order to lapse last summer after COVID-19 cases dropped to low levels.

At a news conference last week, the governor indicated he was hesitant to issue another executive order on remote meetings, instead urging Rhode Island Senate leaders to pass a bill that would have extended remote meetings to 2023. The measure cleared the House last year but stalled in the Senate.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio rejected McKee’s suggestion, saying his chamber wanted to hold more hearings before making any changes to the Open Meetings Act. He instead urged McKee to issue a new executive order, saying they had discussed the issue “ad nauseam.”

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, argued that a legislative fix was still the best long-term option.

“We need to work toward permanent changes to the Open Meetings Act that will allow for greater remote participation while safeguarding the public interest so that in the future we don’t have to rely on executive orders,” Marion tweeted Thursday. He also said he was pleased that the language of McKee’s order lays out “the administration’s guidance for public bodies.”

Almost immediately after the order was issued, Providence City Councilor David Salvatore called for the council to switch its meeting scheduled for Thursday night from in-person to remote. Salvatore announced earlier this week he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

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