Sometimes in political dialogue the acronym OMA is used without being fully understood. The Open Meetings Act (OMA) was enacted by the Rhode Island legislature to prevent political decisions from being made in secret without the public’s awareness. The intent is to ensure any decision made by any public entity is made in a public forum, not behind closed doors or at someone’s house. To ensure illegal meetings don’t happen, three steps must be done:
Public notice is issued notifying when and where a public meeting will be held, including the agenda, which lists items to be discussed.
At the public meeting these listed items are discussed. Only what is on the agenda can be discussed.
At the public meeting, decisions on the items are made. Note: In all three steps, the public is kept informed. Any deviation from these procedures is a violation of the OMA.
Charlestown has an agenda-setting meeting in order to set an agenda, which in turn leads up to Step 1. At this agenda meeting, items can only be added or subtracted to the agenda. There can be no discussion, since the agenda has not been published publicly. Councilor Cooper in her letter to the editor of Sept. 3 (“No ‘reform’ needed for agenda-setting process”) states: “In deciding which items to include on a particular agenda ...’.” She then goes on to list a paragraph of things to be decided. Discussion and decisions can only happen at public meetings on agenda items, not before!
The CCA desperately wants to keep control of the agenda-setting meeting in order to control information provided to the public. Here are two of their current tricks used to keep control of what the public hears:
They are trying to set the time of the agenda-setting meeting to the middle of the work day. If you are retired or unemployed the timing is not an issue. But by doing this, the town council president, Deb Carney, who works, can’t attend without losing business. Councilor Klinger has personal commitments. This would also inconvenience working citizens. A compromise appears to have been reached on the time at the last council meeting, but I believe the CCA will continue to attempt to control the agenda-setting topics.
If the CCA councilors are pressured to actually put an item on the agenda that the CCA doesn’t want the public to hear, CCA tries to rewrite the council minutes afterwards in their favor. Councilor Van Slyke is the CCA’s champion for trying to rewrite political history according to the CCA. She recently attempted to rewrite negative comments in the minutes about the town administrator, but the effort was stopped at the last town meeting. Unfortunately, I’m sure the CCA will continue to try to rewrite minutes.
Now that you know decisions are supposed to be made only in public meetings according to the OMA, listen closely to what CCA members of the Town Council and Planning Commission say. See if you can guess which decisions are actually being made at the public meeting or were they previously made elsewhere!
Steven J. Williams
This article appeared as a Letter to the Editor in The Westerly Sun on September 17, 2021