AG: Pawtucket School Committee violated Open Meetings Act again

AG: Pawtucket School Committee violated Open Meetings Act again

Officials must release minutes from 'unlawful' discussion

PAWTUCKET - The Office of the Attorney General has ruled that the Pawtucket School Committee violated the Open Meetings Act for the second time in six months when members participated in an "unlawful" secretive discussion at its Feb. 11 meeting. The contents of that discussion must now be made public.

The first violation against the School Committee came after Breeze reporter Ethan Shorey was locked out of a meeting on Aug. 6, 2013.

Special Assistant Attorney Gen. Lisa Pinsonneault said that last Friday's ruling, responding to a Feb. 18 Open Meetings Act complaint from The Breeze, "serves as notice to the School Committee that the conduct discussed herein is unlawful and may serve as evidence of a willful or a knowing violation in any similar future situation."

The School Committee "must release the Feb. 11 executive session meeting minutes within 10 business days and a copy should be provided to this department," states Pinsonneault in her finding.

School Committee Chairman Michael Araujo would not comment on either the attorney general's finding of a violation or the order to release the minutes from the Feb. 11 meeting.

"I have yet to speak with our new attorney regarding the decision of this legal matter," he said. "I would like to speak to him first prior to making any comment."

Breeze Editor-in-Chief Marcia Green commented, "Once again we find the Pawtucket School Committee operating outside of the guidelines of the Open Meetings Act. We understand we're in a unique position to monitor violations of the Open Meetings Act - and will continue to report violations - but The Valley Breeze calls upon this school board to read the very clear guidelines issued by the Office of Attorney General and to accept its responsibility for conducting the committee's business with the transparency required of elected officials.

"This board's violations of the law damage a trust with the community that's so essential to Pawtucket's future."

State investigators weren't buying the claim from former school attorney Stephen Robinson that the discussions held in closed-door session on Feb. 11 were allowed because the committee needed legal advice.

At that "executive session" meeting, the School Committee discussed not only the hiring of a new superintendent, Patti DiCenso, but an agreement with former Supt. Deborah Cylke to keep her on as a consultant at her $159,000 superintendent salary.

"Our review of the executive session minutes reveals that most of the approximately 50 minutes did not involve the seeking or obtaining of legal advice on either the interim superintendent or the interpretation of a personnel contract," states the finding. "Arguably, limited parts of the discussion involved frank discussions with legal counsel regarding the legal requirements of having a superintendent in place; however, taken as a whole, we conclude that the discussion was inappropriate for executive session."

Pinsonneault added that the presence of a third party attorney, Richard Ackerman, "provides a strong indication the School Committee was not obtaining privileged legal communications from its attorney while Mr. Ackerman was present."

Read the finding here.

Investigators said they did not find enough evidence for a "willful and knowing" violation, as requested in a Feb. 18 Open Meetings Act complaint from The Breeze, but did warn that another similar incident could result in such a finding.

Though the attorney general's office found the discussion in the executive session to be inappropriate, investigators did not agree with Shorey's complaint that the agenda item for the discussion of legal advice on a new superintendent was too "vague."

The Breeze complaint also stated that Araujo was warned that he would be in violation if he proceeded with the discussion as planned.

"While in the appropriate case such a factor could potentially serve as evidence of a willful or knowing violation, here, we are not persuaded," states the finding. "Among other considerations, as discussed herein, you (Shorey) 'warned' the School Committee that its noticed discussion was not appropriate for executive session, but as discussed, the noticed agenda could very well have been appropriate for executive session.

"Notwithstanding the published notice, the actual discussion veered from the published notice and certainly you (were) provided no warning with respect to this aspect."

The original Breeze complaint stated that none of the items on the agenda for Feb. 11 indicated that Cylke was planning to step down or that an interim superintendent would be appointed.

"There was no indication prior to the meeting that DiCenso was even a candidate for the interim superintendent position or that Cylke was planning to step aside, meaning multiple significant decisions (impacting the future of the school district) were made behind closed doors and without informing the public of what was happening," stated the complaint.

Investigators determined that the previous violation finding last fall had no bearing on whether this latest one should be deemed "willful and knowing."

The School Committee is allowed to redact certain limited portions of the Feb. 11 executive session, including words of advice from school attorneys and a statement from committee member Raymond Spooner.

"All other portions we deem to fall outside the scope of a proper executive session discussion," states the finding.

Board members are not allowed to redact any minutes where Ackerman was present, even if legal advice was being given.

Comments

The School Committee's attorney's should possess, at the very least, a primary knowledge of the open meeting law and have immediately advised the committee of it's actions. Thank you, Ethan Shorey. We need more people like you on-guard against the civil ignorance/disobedience that attempts to keep RI'ers in the 'dark'.

I appreciate what Mr. Shorey has done. For far to long Pawtucket's School Department has operated as a secretive private island on the sea of transparency. This decision showcases why I have tried time and again to open the Windows and let fresh air into the Pawtucket School Department. In the past 2 committee meeting alone the Committee has gone into Executive Session to discuss, which law firm to represent the school committee and "PAA". Why the law firm choice was secret escapes me as the firm would represent the interests of the School's and having good representation is a matter of importance to all Pawtucket citizens. So the matter should have been debated in public.
The term PAA mean the Pawtucket Administrator's Association. Why was that not made clear in the agenda?
For far too long secrecy has been the hidden agenda in the Pawtucket School Department.
Joseph c. Knight

The SC Members get drawn into an Executive Session by their LEADERSHIP believing it's legitimate, lawful "on the up and up", etc. It's not till we're back there and the meeting commences and progresses that some of us begin to realize what it's truly all about. And, OMA compliant IT IS NOT. Now you can begin to get an idea of at least one reason why this SC Member ""stormed" out of this meeting on February 11.

-Dave Coughlin, Member Pawtucket SC

Please don't blame leadership. They don't tie you up and drag you into the meetings. You can always stand up and leave. YOU could have call the A/G.

I will now return to my regularly schedule town.

Hey! Did the self styled SC "Leadership" make it to the AG's Open Govt. Summit yesterday? Perhaps the VB will ask them. I only saw SC candidate Joe Knight at the Summit. I found it most interesting that the VB Complaint was mentioned twice - once in the APRA session and once in the OMA session. Wonder if it was twice mentioned for emphasis? We shall see.

Dave Coughlin, Member Pawtucket SC