February 12, 2009

Open Meetings and Public Comments

Carroll Andrew Morse

Given opinions expressed from multiple quarters at Tuesday night's East Providence School Committee meeting on whether members of public bodies can respond directly to questions offered during the public comments, I want to point out that Rhode Island law is explicit on the subject, and the answer is yes...

42-46-6(d) Nothing within this chapter shall prohibit any public body, or the members thereof, from responding to comments initiated by a member of the public during a properly noticed open forum even if the subject matter of a citizen's comments or discussions were not previously posted, provided such matters shall be for informational purposes only and may not be voted on except where necessary to address an unexpected occurrence that requires immediate action to protect the public or to refer the matter to an appropriate committee or to another body or official. Nothing contained in this chapter requires any public body to hold an open forum session, to entertain or respond to any topic nor does it prohibit any public body from limiting comment on any topic at such an open forum session. No public body, or the members thereof, may use this section to circumvent the spirit or requirements of this chapter.
A public body can choose to limit the topics that are discussed, not even a requirement that what happened during the "official" part of the meeting be an "allowed" topic, and never any requirement that committee members not respond.

This change in the law was added in 2006, presumably in response to some less-than-clear guidance that had been offered on the subject by the Attorney General (making this a perfect example, by the way, of the democratic process working well. Executive branch says "this is how I'm going to enforce the law". Legislative branch says "we don't like how the enforcement is proceding, so let's change the law".)