Verdict: Manville Fire 'willfully' violated Open Meetings Act

Verdict: Manville Fire 'willfully' violated Open Meetings Act

LINCOLN - There's still the matter of assessing the fines, but two years after Marcel DesMarais complained he'd been blocked from attending a second-floor meeting of the Manville Fire District, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge determined the district had "willfully or knowingly" violated the Open Meetings Act.

The ruling came from Justice Joseph Montalbano last week when he noted ignored warnings to the elected board that continued holding meetings in a room that's not accessible by the handicapped.

Included in his decision is a clarification that, indeed, the local fire districts are subject to the state's open meeting laws.

A lawsuit against the fire district came from Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin who took this action reserved for only the most blatant of alleged violations. Open Meetings Act complaints by citizens are typically resolved with a letter from Kilmartin's office to the offending public body.

He called Manville's OMA violations "especially egregious."

The district's attorney, Louis DeSimone, hadn't disputed the repeated second-floor meetings but had argued that independent fire districts like Manville were exempt from the state law.

The district's taxpayers now face up to a $5,000 fine for each of the three violations - Dec. 14, 2011, Jan. 11, 2012 and Feb. 8, 2012. The district had been warned in November 2011 following the same violation, on Aug. 10, 2011, the AG's Office noted for the judge.

"As part of the November 2011 finding, the office expressly instructed the fire district to conduct future meetings at or in locations that were handicapped accessible," the state's attorney noted.

Using sharp language about the ruling, the attorney for DesMarais, Mark McBurney, said the decision is "the first, small, chink in the armor of the warlords running - and ruining - Rhode Island's rural independent fire districts."

He continued, "It is a valuable reminder to the princelings who run Manville, Lime Rock, West Glocester, and others, that there is a limit to their arrogant disregard for the law. While workplace nepotism, favoritism and discrimination can be a small problem in some workplaces, it is no coincidence that they infest these rural fire districts.

"These fire districts, and those men that run them, like their own personal fiefdom, blacken the honorable service of firefighters everywhere."

Still pending against the department is a 2012 lawsuit filed by Marcel DesMarais' son, Danny, with other plaintiffs, that alleges 13 violations of the Open Meetings Act, and 14 violations of the Access to Public Records Act, and nine violations of state law governing the awarding of municipal contracts without competitive bidding.

In a separate matter, DesMarais is also invoking the Rhode Island Whistleblowers' Act in his fight to regain his job as deputy chief of the Manville department. He's currently a dispatcher in Smithfield.

DeSimone could not be reached for comment.

Said Attorney General Kilmartin about this case, "One of the very basic tenets of our Open Meetings Act is the right for all citizens to have access to public meetings, no matter their physical limitation.

"For a public body to continue to hold meetings in locations that excluded persons with disabilities is especially egregious."

Montalbano set a hearing date of Dec. 6 for determining fines against the fire district. Michael W. Field, assistant attorney general and chief of the Open Government Unit, argued the case before the court.