AG finds Pawtucket school board violated OMA

AG finds Pawtucket school board violated OMA

'Continued concern' that this was a second offense

PROVIDENCE - The Office of the Attorney General ruled last week that the Pawtucket School Committee violated the Open Meetings Act when members locked the door for an Aug. 6 meeting and failed to let Valley Breeze reporter Ethan Shorey in for approximately half of the meeting.

Lisa Pinsonneault, special assistant attorney general, set aside the School Committee's main contention that no one in the conference room at the central administration building heard the buzzer when Shorey pressed it.

"... The School Committee is required under the OMA to make sure its meetings are open and accessible to the public," wrote Pinsonneault in her response to the complaint. "While it is not clear why you could not access the meeting, it is clear that you could not access the meeting until the meeting was half over."

Pinsonneault said officials will not pursue a lawsuit or fine against the school board, saying they found "no evidence that the School Committee knowingly or willfully violated the OMA, though they "have concerns" based on the facts of a previous complaint from a former member of the Pawtucket School Committee. Joe Knight was locked out of a meeting back in 2011.

"Though injunctive relief (authoritative order) would be appropriate, we prefer to allow the School Committee the opportunity to remedy the violation on its own," wrote Pinsonneault.

In a prior response from school attorney Stephen Robinson, officials claimed the buzzer at the door was in working condition during the Aug. 6 meeting. They produced a recording of the meeting that showed there was no buzzer sound heard.

School officials said they knew the buzzer was in "conference room mode and operating properly because several individuals used the buzzer and were admitted immediately before Mr. Shorey's arrival."

Robinson also included in his response to the attorney general's office surveillance photos showing Shorey arriving at 6:02 p.m. but the photos did not show him at the door.

A subsequent response from Shorey stated that he never said that officials heard the buzzer and deliberately kept him out of the meeting, but that they should "be held to a higher standard, especially given past incidents."

Pinsonneault referenced the 2011 case of former School Committee member Joe Knight, who complained about being locked out of a meeting on Oct. 15, 2011. The school board at that time indicated that a school employee tasked with answering the door did hear the buzzer when other people rang it, "but was unable to explain" why the employee didn't hear the buzzer when Knight said he rang it.

"The School Committee made assurances that it was taking steps to ensure that the buzzer was in good working condition," wrote Pinsonneault of the 2011 case. After the 2013 case, they are now pledging to post someone at the door.

"In this instance, we find no evidence that the School Committee knowingly or willfully violated the OMA," wrote Pinsonneault. "Although we have concerns based upon our advisement in Knight, based upon the facts presented in that case, we do not conclude that the School Committee knowingly or willfully violated the OMA."

She said officials do "find it noteworthy" that the School Committee, in an attempt to thwart potential future violations, made assurances that there will be an individual at the door of all School Committee meetings held at the administration building to ensure public access.

"We do, however, express our continued concern that this case represents the second occasion where a person has been unable to access a School Committee meeting and remind the School Committee of its OMA obligation to ensure its meetings comply with the OMA," wrote Pinsonneault.

She said that the School Committee should notify the Office of the Attorney General within 10 business days whether its members "will voluntarily reconsider and re-vote on matters conducted before your actual physical presence at the meeting."

The Aug. 6 incident "may serve as evidence of a willful or knowing violation in any similar situation" in the future, according to Pinsonneault.