PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Zoom meeting is about to end in Rhode Island, at least for public bodies required to follow the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Gov. Dan McKee’s executive order allowing public bodies to meet remotely ends on Friday and he intends to let it expire, his press secretary Alana O’Hare confirmed Monday. The governor had previously renewed the order multiple times, as had former Gov. Gina Raimondo.
Raimondo initially put the order in place in March 2020 as the coronavirus spread, allowing public bodies such as city and town councils, school committees and elections boards to meet by teleconferencing, which is normally prohibited by the state’s Open Meetings Act.
In the 16 months since then hundreds of commissions, panels and boards ranging from the Providence City Council to the more obscure Tiverton Dog Park Advisory Committee have been meeting remotely, using videoconferencing programs such as Zoom and WebEx.
The remote meetings have had their share of problems, from Zoom-bombing trolls to choppy internet connections, but have also allowed increased access to the meetings, as many people who otherwise would not have been able to attend could watch from home.
Bringing meetings back in person doesn’t mean public bodies can’t also choose to live-stream so people can watch from home; some did that before the pandemic. But nothing in the Open Meetings Act requires meetings to be streamed, aired or videotaped.
“That requirement to provide virtual access to the public also goes away when the executive order expires,” said John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “Anecdotal evidence, particularly from school committees, suggests that holding meetings online leads to greater public participation. Common Cause encourages public bodies to continue to provide, to the best of their ability, remote access for the members of the public.”
McKee in recent months has lifted many of his executive orders related to the pandemic, including capacity restrictions in buildings and mask-wearing requirements for fully vaccinated individuals.
“The governor and his team continuously review remaining COVID-19-related executive orders to determine if they are needed from a legal, operational and public health and safety perspective — the team concluded that it was appropriate to allow EO 21-72 to expire,” O’Hare said, referring to the remote meetings order.
“If the economy can fully reopen, the government should fully reopen,” Marion added. “The only way to make sure that happens is by allowing the executive order to expire.”
There was a failed effort to extend the remote meetings beyond the pandemic; the R.I. House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this year to extend remote meetings until 2023, but the Senate declined to take it up.
“The Senate believes that decisions are best made when everyone, including the public, can meet in person,” spokesperson Greg Pare said.
The bill was opposed by open government groups who were concerned about public officials being able to evade contact with members of the public and reporters when making critical decisions like spending taxpayer dollars or setting school policy.
Lawmakers did give McKee the option to renew the remote meetings executive order until September 1, in an amendment to the state budget bill. But his decision to allow it to expire reverts public bodies back to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act as written.
Some public bodies have already started transitioning back to in-person meetings, including the Providence City Council.
The council has held its most recent three meetings in person and has also streamed the meetings online, which they didn’t do before the pandemic. But the return to the council chamber has had some growing pains, with shifting communication about public access.
The first three meetings were still listed in the city’s Open Meetings Portal as “being held by conference remotely” even though they took place in person, and the doors to City Hall have been locked on multiple occasions during the meetings. The celebratory first meeting back in the chamber was initially described as “invite only,” which was walked back to just strongly encouraging the public to watch the live stream.
A police officer last week told a reporter he was asked to let just 15 people in to the meeting, while a city spokesperson said the capacity of the chamber was actually 60 people.
That number changed to 82 on Monday, including council members and staff, still less than the pre-pandemic capacity of the large chamber which also has an upper balcony. The new capacity was calculated by the Department of Public Property using guidance on the R.I. Department of Health’s website, according to spokesperson Ben Smith, based on the square footage of the room and an effort to keep three feet of spacing.
“The council is committed to making our meetings as accessible as possible to the public, so while we are adhering to the limits set for in-person City Council meetings, we are making sure those meetings are available livestreamed and also are archived for future viewing on our YouTube channel,” council spokesperson Abigail Appel said in an email.
Since McKee has lifted all capacity restrictions statewide, it’s unclear whether the city will be able to enforce such a capacity once the remote meetings order is lifted.
“If the city of Providence is going to limit the number of people who can enter City Hall for a City Council meeting they need to explain legal authority they believe gives them that power,” Marion said. “The city charter is clear, ‘All meetings of the city council and all committees thereof shall be open to the public.’ Providence residents must be able to observe their elected officials at work in person.”
The council was planning to continue holding its committee meetings on Zoom, Appel said Monday, to avoid overcrowding the smaller committee rooms. She did not respond to a question about whether the council was aware that remote meetings would no longer be allowed.
McKee told reporters Tuesday that municipalities had been informed.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s office runs the state’s open meetings portal for hundreds of public bodies. Her spokesperson Nick Domings initially said Tuesday it appeared no one in the office was notified that remote meetings would be ending, but McKee’s office later shared an email from June that indicated he would not be renewing the executive order if the legislature didn’t act.
“Secretary Gorbea remains committed to making government accessible to Rhode Islanders,” Domings said. “We will work to communicate with all stakeholders affected by this decision as quickly as possible so public meetings remain transparent.”