An investigation by the Department of the Attorney General’s office into 23 Open Meetings Act complaints against the Town of Johnston regarding the Town Council’s January 10, 2017 meeting has concluded with no violations being found.
At the short and rowdy special session meeting, members of the council unanimously approved Resolution 2017-5, which authorized Mayor Joseph Polisena to enter into a water supply and economic development agreement between the town and Invenergy Services LLC. Invenergy was looking for a water supply to move ahead with plans to build the Clear River Energy Center (CREC), a nearly $700 million, 1,000 megawatt natural gas and oil powered plant proposed for Wallum Lake Road in Burrillville.
The power plant is a controversial proposal, which has drawn complaints and environmental concerns from across the state. At the January meeting, the council approved a more than $18 million 20-year arrangement with the company that would allow Invenergy to truck water from Johnston to the Burrillville site.
The council’s approval of the resolution came under immediate scrutiny. Council chambers were at capacity more than an hour before the session began, and residents and non-residents were left to wait in the nearby hallway to observe the proceedings. Some questioned the legality of the meeting, which was called on short notice.
In a 13-page finding addressed to the 23 complainants dated June 30, the Attorney General’s office stated that some of the received complaints addressed several matters and that they examined three main issues raised: the alleged defect in the notice for the meeting, the alleged insufficient venue, and the alleged rolling quorum held outside of the public purview.
Four complaints alleged that the notice given for the January meeting, which was posted first on January 6 and again on January 9 by the town were insufficient. According to the AG’s office, they found that “no one is aggrieved by the alleged defect in notice.”
Twenty complaints alleged that the venue chosen for the January 10 meeting was improper, as those wishing to attend were unable to do so because of the size of the venue, which was at its 87 occupant capacity based on fire codes, and that the town failed to respond to requests to change the venue.
In response to those complaints, Johnston submitted three affidavits from Town Clerk Vincent P. Baccari Jr., Fire Chief Timothy P. McGlaughlin and Police Chief Richard S. Tamburini. All indicated that seating in council chambers is on a “first come, first served” basis. According to the findings of the AG’s office, the Open Meetings Act “does not require a public body to provide unlimited seating” and found that available seating was not so sparse as to effectively eliminate the public’s attendance. The document went on to state that the approximately 20 people who were left outside of the chamber “could conceivably still observe the meeting’s proceedings.”
While some complainants alleged that the room was filled with union members in every seat, the AG’s findings stated that there was no evidence of preferential treatment by the town with respect to seating.
“This is not to say that we are unsympathetic towards those who were unable to be seated at the public meeting. In fact, our review of the video recording finds senior citizens standing in the hallways while able-bodied and young men sit in limited seats, some of whom were laughing [and arguably taunting] those who stood in the hallway,” states the findings. “We understand the frustration of those who not only could not enter the meeting room but also were subjected to such conduct.”
Six complaints alleged that in a series of meetings between Mayor Polisena and various council members prior to the January 10 meeting constituted a “rolling” or “walking” quorum that violated the Open Meetings Act. In response, Johnston submitted affidavits from the five council members and the mayor. The AG’s office focused on conversations had between the mayor and the council members and whether they served as a chain of communication sufficient to constitute a collective discussion.
The findings revealed that there was no violation, as the mayor is not a “public body” under the Open Meetings Act and is not subject to those requirements. The department also found that none of the communications between the officials contained a quorum of the town council.
One final issue, the lack of public comment during the meeting, was also addressed in the findings. As the Open Meetings Act does not address whether the public has a right to speak during an open meeting, the department was constrained to find no violation.
While no violations were found, the number of complaints and their content indicated that there was public dissatisfaction with the process. However, the AG’s office will not file suit in these matters.
In a phone conversation on Wednesday, Mayor Polisena reiterated that there was nothing untoward in his conversations with council members or their passage of the proposed resolution in January.