Machtley's suggestion sidesteps Open Meeting Act

Machtley's suggestion sidesteps Open Meeting Act

SMITHFIELD - Bryant University President Ronald K. Machtley has asked to meet in private with individual members of the Town Council, but the request appears to have widened a standoff on how much the university should pay for municipal public safety runs to the campus.

Machtley's request drew negative reaction from most of the council, but won support from Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr., who said he's willing to try anything to encourage negotiations that have been elusive.

The council in recent weeks has been anticipating meeting as a group, in public, with a three-person negotiating team that Machtley appointed.

But in a move that seemed to take the council by surprise, Machtley emailed Councilwoman Suzanna Alba, offering "to meet in private individually or in groups of two so we not violate the Open Meeting law."

He said also that if exceptions to the law exist under which the entire council could meet in closed session, "it would be ideal SLps not to negotiate or to solve the issues but to consider in private paths for resolution."

The Open Meetings Law permits closed meetings on specific topics, such as pending litigation, real estate acquisition, or discussions of individual job performance.

But Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr. has advised the council that in the Bryant case, discussions should not be moved behind closed doors.

Alba reported Machtley's offer at the council's Dec. 3 meeting, where it was greeted largely with stony disapproval.

Council Vice President Ronald Manni, a vocal critic of what he terms Machtley's refusal to negotiate for more than a decade, said, "This is an issue that's in the public forum and that's where it should stay."

In an email response to Machtley Dec. 4, Alba wrote, "I feel as though private meetings at this point for a matter that has unfortunately become very public may not be in the best interest of the town SLps"

She said also that she would be uncomfortable meeting individually because she has no authority to represent the council's wishes.

Machtley's offer, and the council's refusal, seemed to leave the situation in a temporary limbo.

"I don't know where we go from here," said Alba, a member of the council's Democratic minority who surmised Machtley made the contact through her because she once observed that she has never even met him.

In an email back to her on Dec. 4, Machtley indicated that Bryant is awaiting information from an outside consultant on what the public safety runs actually cost, and would then set a meeting with Town Manager Dennis Finlay, whom the council has named the "point person" for arranging negotiations.

Machtley wrote that the meeting would be held "to discuss," but did not elaborate.

During the council's Dec. 3 meeting, Republican President LaGreca told Alba, "I could care less if you meet with Machtley, to at least start a discussion somehow. Maybe you would be the one."

LaGreca, a former member of Bryant's board of trustees who resigned when he ran for council, said, "Someone is going to have to step up to break the logjam."

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation authorizing Smithfield to bill Bryant for public safety runs, unless the two sides negotiate a different agreement by fast-approaching March 1.

Based on cost figures supplied by municipal department heads, the town has asked Bryant for a 20-year "memorandum of understanding" under which the school would pay $300,000 annually and make a separate payment of $150,000 every four years for public safety equipment purchases, in addition to creating a number of scholarships and tuition remissions for town residents.

The council has dismissed as inadequate Bryant's offer of $35,000 a year and the annual donation, for a decade, of 200 renovated laptop computers for the high school at an estimated annual value of $80,000 to $100,000.

Bryant has been running a series of large ads in The Valley Breeze & Observer that puts its economic stimulation of the local economy at $17 million a year, but some on the council have questioned that figure, just as Bryant has questioned the validity of the amounts the council is asking it to pay.

The council has described its figures as a starting point for negotiations, indicating room for compromise, but Manni complained at the last council meeting, "We can't get them to the table. It's disappointing."