AG Dismisses Open Meetings Complaint Against Town Councilors

by | Nov 23, 2019

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The state Attorney General’s office last week ruled against East Greenwich resident and former Town Council candidate Charles Callanan, saying Mike Donegan, Renu Englehart and Mike Zarrella as Town Councilors-elect did not violate the Open Meetings Act when they participated in a news press conference Nov. 9, 2018, three days after they were elected.

Callanan filed his complaint last November, accusing the three Town Councilors-elect of violating the Open Meetings Act because their meeting together constituted a quorum so they should have posted a public notice. Callanan included video from the event taken from an East Greenwich News article about the impromptu press conference with EG News and RI Future held at Town Hall.

In its ruling against Callanan, the Attorney General’s office said it was undisputed that a quorum of Town Councilors-elect met with East Greenwich News (which posted a story about the interview here). It said it was also undisputed that elect officials are subject to the Open Meetings Act.

But, it continued,

This Office’s review of the posted video of the interview confirms that the members-elect responded to questions rather than engaged in a collective discussion. The dialogue between [East Greenwich News] and the Town Councilors-elect concerned topics including the Democratic “election sweep,” dissatisfaction with the then-Town Manager, and the Town Councilor-elects’ hopes for an orderly transition into their new positions. Although some of these topics may implicate matters over which the Town Council has control, there is no evidence that the councilors-elect discussed these matters with each other as opposed to responding to questions posed by a reporter. The Complainant contends that aspects of the interview appeared pre-planned, but also acknowledged that the members-elect “ran on a platform” together. We were not presented with any evidence or even specific allegations indicating that the members-elect engaged in discussions about the issues prior to the interview, as opposed to having discussed these matters prior to being elected as part of running on a joint platform. Additionally, it is undisputed that no action was taken by the members-elect during the interview. We also note that the conversation at issue involved a media interview and was the subject of public reporting. This consideration further militates against a determination that the interview undermined the transparency and openness purposes of the OMA. Based on the facts presented, we do not find that the OMA was violated. 

The Attorney General’s office, however, did say an interview with a quorum of a public body did “run a fine line” with regard to the Open Meetings Act. It also said complainant Callanan could pursue the matter in Superior Court with 90 days of the AG’s decision or 180 days of the alleged violation, whichever came first. Callanan did not respond to an email request for a comment.

Find the AG’s full response here.

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