2018-02-08 / Front Page

Behind Closed Doors

Citizens Clash Over Council Process
By Joseph T. O’Connor

At its Jan. 24 meeting, the Newport City Council held lengthy public discussions about talking buses and a citywide bike-share proposal. After the open meeting, the council met behind closed doors to discuss the futures of three publicly held buildings long-debated in this City by the Sea.

The Newport buildings, which include the abandoned schools of Cranston-Calvert and Coggeshall, as well as the Armory building on Thames Street, have garnered local attention for decades.

Now, in the wake of the latest council meeting, Newporters are raising questions about policy and procedure at the municipal level, and demanding clarification about the process by which the council decides to meet in private to discuss public property.

In short, wonders Newport resident Nancy Harley, when does the public have a right to know?

“I’d like to know the process that would determine if an executive session would be called,” said Harley, who has lived in Newport on and off for 20 years and works part time at Island Books in Middletown. “Are there written, understood parameters? I don’t know if any of that is articulated anywhere, but I think it certainly ought to be, so that when the general public hears that there’s an executive session, we can assume it’s for reasons a, b, c, not because of someone’s whim.”

The Rhode Island Open Meetings Act states: “Every meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public.” But OMA, first passed in 1976, notes exceptions to the rule, and these exceptions allow public officials across Rhode Island to discuss certain issues in private meetings, or what are known as “executive” sessions.

In order to hold the Jan. 24 executive session, city councilors invoked Section 42-46-5 of the Rhode Island General Law that permits public bodies to confer over the “lease of real property for public purposes, or of the disposition of publicly held property wherein advanced public information would be detrimental to the interest of the public.”

Mayor Harry Winthrop, in a Feb. 6 phone interview with Newport This Week, said the statute offers 10 purposes for which public bodies can meet in executive session, but the primary reasons for moving from public to private include collective bargaining, personnel issues and disposition of public property.

“When those things come up there’s a lot of information in there that is confidential, especially when … the solicitor and the manager are negotiating contracts,” Winthrop said. “That’s not information that’s made public until after there’s an agreement, when it goes before the council to approve it.”

While Rhode Island law allows voting in executive session under certain circumstances, it stipulates, “if a vote is cast during the executive session itself, the vote must be disclosed as soon as the open session is reconvened.”

Winthrop said the city solicitor or city manager typically makes the decision to discuss a topic in executive session, but added that nothing was voted on during the Jan. 24 private meeting and the council rarely votes on issues behind closed doors.

“It eventually does come to the public’s attention, but there are times when you can’t be involved in the intimate details or we’ll never get anything accomplished,” he said. “The decisions that we’re making are the decisions that we feel are in the best interest of everyone.”

Newport City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. stressed the importance of playing one’s cards close to the chest during certain negotiations, but also recognized the public’s right to know, when the time is right.

“There may be sensitive information that’s imparted during an executive session that, if it was out there in the public, could have a detrimental effect on what you’re discussing,” said Nicholson, explaining that the council typically uses executive sessions for informative purposes. “It’s actually refreshing to see people are concerned about the little vacuum of government we work in.”

At issue to some is the interpretation of the language in Section 42-46-5, specifically the portion referring to advanced public knowledge being “detrimental to the interest of the public,” and therefore a reason to move a meeting away from the public eye and into the private.

“The state verbiage homes in on this concept of the public interest,” said Michael Cullen, an Air Force veteran and Newporter with experience sitting on numerous local boards and committees. “One of the reasons to move into executive session is to protect the interest of the public. In Newport, which I find to be … almost run as an oligarchy, this concept of public interest has not been well developed by city councilors.”

But the pendulum may be shifting. Toward the conclusion of the Jan. 24 open meeting, councilors Susan Taylor and Jamie Bova said that residents had voiced concerns over the process of why the council meets in executive session. While Bova said she believes the council is acting in accordance with the best wishes of Newporters, she brought up the concerns in order to avoid any air of impropriety.

“I wanted that to be said publicly to at least get that on the record for folks who were concerned,” Bova told NTW on Jan. 30. “Sometimes when we go into executive session I think that we could be more clear about why we are going into it. Even if everything going on is above board, if it looks like it’s bad, people are going to make assumptions.”

City administrators are currently focused on a deal with the National Sailing Hall of Fame over the potential sale of the Armory building. And while they hope to reach an agreement that will satisfy the council and most Newporters, Cullen, the Air Force veteran and self-proclaimed “civic agitator,” warned councilors against succumbing to tunnel vision and misusing the privilege of executive session.

“Our city council needs to use that power sparingly,” he said. “Otherwise we’re just going to continue to be viewed on a world stage as this myopic and parochial community.”

Nicholson’s office released a statement on Feb. 1 in an effort to clarify why the council met in executive session and to highlight certain areas of negotiations with NSHOF.

“It had been in the back of my mind for a while,” Nicholson said about the statement. “I keep an eye on public sentiment, and I keep an eye on information that’s out there. Ultimately, the council makes a decision on something, but everyone is entitled to fair and complete information. And I want people to be informed.”

The Newport City Council meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month. The next meetings will be held at City Hall on Feb. 14 and 28 at 6:30 p.m.

City Manager Releases Armory Statement

At the heart of many Newporters’ concerns lies the potential sale of the Armory building to the National Sailing Hall of Fame, currently located in Annapolis, Maryland.

According to a Feb. 1 statement from Newport City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr.’s office, two separate appraisers were consulted to reach a potential sale amount based on “independent fair market analyses … to determine its fair market value price.”

“I actually have three opinions of value,” Nicholson wrote in an email to NTW on Feb. 6, though he would not divulge the appraisers.

No agreement, however, has been reached, according to Winthrop. “I’m hoping that it will happen this month,” he said. “The sooner we can get it into the public light, the better.”

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