Shared from the 3/22/2020 The Providence Journal eEdition

Open-government groups raise concerns about remote meetings

PROVIDENCE — After the first bumpy attempt to remotely broadcast a meeting of the Rhode Island Board of Elections, two advocacy groups are urging Gov. Gina Raimondo to tweak her executive order suspending the state’s open-meetings law.

In their letter to Raimondo, the executive directors of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause Rhode Island wrote:

“We understand this is an extraordinary time for state and local governments as they cope with the COVID-19 outbreak. In light of that, our organizations recognize the need to relax some of the safeguards in the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act and the Access to Public Records Act as you did in Executive Order 20-05.”

“However, we write to express some concerns and offer some suggestions,’’ wrote the ACLU’s Steven Brown and Common Cause’s John Marion.

They suggested these tweaks:

• "In the event audio or video coverage of a proceeding or meeting is interrupted, the presiding official shall suspend the discussion until the audio or video is restored.“

• “When operating remote meetings by video conference, all participating members of the public body should be clearly visible and audible to the public at all times.”

• "At the start of the meeting, the presiding official should be required to announce the names of any members of the public body participating remotely. During a meeting for which only audio is being provided, anyone speaking should repeat their name prior to making their remarks.“

• "All votes should be conducted by roll call so that those following by video or audio are aware of how each member of the public body voted.“

• "Any documents presented to the public body at the public meeting should, if possible, be put on the website of the public body prior to the start of the public meeting.“

• "The public body should record all meetings and make the recording available on a public website on a timely basis.“

More broadly, the two groups urged immediate changes “clarifying that should a public body continue to meet in person, it must still provide remote access to members of the public.”

“We are also troubled by the Order’s authorization to public bodies to forgo contemporaneous public access to a meeting by reason of ’economic hardship or despite best efforts.’

“There are many free audio and video conference programs available. Additionally, you announced two days ago that Microsoft has offered free licenses for Office 365 for municipalities,’’ they wrote.

“Under the circumstances, no public body should be able to rely on this exemption, and so it should be removed in any future Order.”

The two groups also voiced concern about the suspension of certain provisions in the state Access to Public Records Act, including the maximum 30-business-day deadline for responses.

“The order gives public bodies twenty additional business days to respond. It is our experience that too many public bodies routinely — sometimes automatically — seek extensions of time to respond to APRA requests.

“We understand that the additional time extension in the Order may be in response to some city and town halls being fully closed at the moment, and therefore having literally nobody available to respond to APRA requests. However, the Order is not in any way limited to those extreme situations,’’ they wrote.

“Allowing agencies to invoke an additional 20 business days extension means that important records could be withheld from the public for almost two-and-a-half months.”

“Because this suspension of APRA’s deadline is unwarranted and extremely damaging to the public interest,’’ they urged the removal of the 20-day extension from the executive order if it is renewed next month.

Between now and then, “we would urge you to ask public bodies to abide by the statutory deadlines if the APRA request specifically seeks documents related to the pandemic.” kgregg@

(401) 277-7078

On Twitter:@kathyprojo

See this article in the e-Edition Here