PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A slate of open government groups are calling on Gov. Dan McKee to reinstate the ability to hold public meetings remotely, as the coronavirus surges in Rhode Island.
Citing the rise in infections and arrival of the Omicron variant, the coalition known as ACCESS/RI sent McKee a letter Tuesday asking him to both allow public bodies to meet remotely, and require them to offer remote access to the public.
“We obviously cannot speak for the public bodies themselves, but we do know that many residents of the state – in recognition of the large number of breakthrough infections being caused by Omicron – are legitimately and understandably reluctant to physically attend public meetings,” the letter reads. “Particularly for the state’s large elderly and immunocompromised population, even being masked and fully vaccinated is no guarantee of protection in crowded meetings in indoor settings.”
The letter is signed by the leaders of the ACLU of Rhode Island, ACCESS/RI, Common Cause Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
The state’s open meeting law normally requires public bodies to meet in person and in public, but former Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order last year suspending parts of that law so public bodies such as city councils, school boards and more could meet online or on the phone — with public access — during the pandemic.
McKee extended the order multiple times when he took over as governor in March, but he allowed it to expire in July as coronavirus cases dropped and vaccines became more widely available.
Since then, public bodies have been required to meet in person. They can still allow remote participation from the public, but many do not.
In response to the groups’ letter on Tuesday, McKee’s office said instead of signing an executive order he is calling on the R.I. General Assembly to pass a bill to allow for the remote meetings.
A previous bill that would have extended remote meetings to 2023 passed the House earlier this year, but was not approved by the Senate.
“The governor is fully committed to transparency and open government, especially during the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” McKee’s press secretary Alana O’Hare said in an email. “At the same time we do have a three branch system of government and the governor has been committed to using his unilateral, executive authority in a limited capacity.”
“We would encourage the Senate to take up that bill as one of their first acts in January and send the bill to the governor’s desk for signature,” O’Hare said.
In response, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he had asked McKee months ago to reinstate his executive order.
“I appreciate Governor McKee’s concerns on this issue, which is why my office requested that he reinstate the executive order concerning the Open Meetings Act during the fall when COVID cases rose and the Delta variant took hold,” Ruggerio said. “As he acknowledges, he decided not to do so. The Senate will give the legislation its due consideration when we resume business in January.”
Senate leaders had previously declined to take up the bill, noting that “decisions are best made when everyone, including the public, can meet in person,” a spokesperson said back in July.
Multiple groups, including some of those now calling for a return to remote meetings, expressed concern at the time that allowing the virtual meetings to continue beyond the length of the pandemic-related emergency would degrade reporters’ and citizens’ access to public officials and documents.
But the groups now saw the public’s access as being harmed, with many meetings taking place without any virtual option for those concerned about their health.
“The discouraging and admittedly tiring length of time that we have all had to deal with the effects of COVID demands more, not less, attention to ensuring public oversight of the democratic process,” the groups said.