PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Government watchdog groups are raising concerns over Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s executive order to suspend part of the state’s Open Meetings Act during the COVID-19 emergency, saying the new rules make it too easy for public officials to evade transparency.
The second-term governor on Monday ordered a one-month suspension of the law, which requires legislative bodies – such as the General Assembly, city and town councils and commissions – to meet publicly and in person. At a news conference, she said she had worked with Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office to determine what was allowable.
Raimondo said the order is supposed to allow the groups to meet remotely with participation from the public. Nonetheless, some of the language raised red flags among advocates.
“Unfortunately, there is a loophole that allows meetings to go forward without public access if the public body cannot afford the necessary technology, or if they are unable to find the means necessary to allow public access,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
“With much of our business and educational communities moving to online classes and meetings, there is no excuse for public bodies to not adopt the necessary technology for public access,” he said.
The order does stipulate that legislative bodies must accommodate members of the public, including when the law requires real-time participation, which can be offered through telephone, internet or otherwise-enabled audio and video.
But Marion pointed out there is also a provision that allows the groups to sidestep the requirements, and the reasons are relatively subjective.
“A public body that for reasons of economic hardship or despite best efforts is unable to provide alternative means of public access that will enable the public to follow the proceedings [in real time] may instead post on its website a full and complete transcript, recording or other comprehensive records of the proceedings as a soon as practicable upon conclusion of the proceedings,” Raimondo ordered.
The provision did not sit well with New England First Amendment Coalition executive director Justin Silverman, who said it’s reasonable to allow public officials more flexibility during the coronavirus pandemic, “but there still must be citizen participation and oversight.”
“This order makes it too easy for officials to evade transparency,” Silverman said. “As the governor said herself in the order, there are low-cost options available that allow public participation for meetings held remotely. Municipalities should be required to use them.”
The new rules have already sparked some controversy and confusion. Within hours of Raimondo signing the new order, the Providence City Council – citing the new rules – announced it would still meet in person on Thursday, but close the meeting off to the public, with a live stream available instead.
“Governor Raimondo today lifted the requirements for Open Meetings, and the City Council’s scheduled meeting on Thursday, March 19, will be livestreamed on our YouTube Channel and our Facebook page,” an email from the City Council said. “Out of an abundance of caution and to maintain the 25 person limitation on gatherings, the meeting will be closed to the public and media.”
The announcement was immediately met with pushback from several people, including University of Connecticut journalism professor and former Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton, who tweeted, “Terrible idea, @GovRaimondo! Pool reporter if necessary. Transparency essential.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island later slammed the City Council for conflating the executive order with the governor’s 25-person limit on public gatherings, calling on Raimondo to address the issue.
City Council spokesperson Bill Kepner responded on Tuesday, tweeting, “That policy was cleared up last night. We were trying to stick to the 25 person directive from the governor and have shared that we would allow one pool reporter.”
It’s unclear how a reporter pool would work as Rhode Island’s television, print and digital news outlets do not currently have such an agreement in place.
Kepner said the councilors and staff in the room would add up to 24 people.
The R.I. Board of Elections met Tuesday to discuss swirling questions about whether COVID-19 might disrupt the presidential primary election scheduled for April 28. The board promised to live stream the meeting, but mobile users quickly noticed problems after it started, spurring officials to issue a reminder that a recording of the meeting would be made available afterward.
Unlike the Providence City Council, however, the elections board still allowed members of the public to attend the meeting in person.
In addition to changes to public meetings, the new order also loosens regulations around the state’s Access to Public Records Act, or APRA, effectively suspending the timeframe within which government is required to respond to all pending and new public records requests.
“Any agency or public body … may extend the timeline for responding to a records request by an additional 20 business days,” Raimondo wrote in the order, adding that public officials must stipulate that more time is needed because of COVID-19.
Silverman, who advocates for open and transparent government across New England, raised additional concerns with the APRA changes, saying that any exception to the open meeting and public records laws must be offset by efforts elsewhere to maintain trust between citizens and their government.
“In times of crisis, trust in our government is paramount,” Silverman said. “That trust won’t survive if we continue to chip away at our transparency laws without also mandating new safeguards for the public’s right to know.”