SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The Rhode Island Department of Attorney General ruled last week that the South Kingstown School Committee was not in violation of the Open Meetings Act when a “quorum” of school committee members participated in a professional development subcommittee meeting last August.
In March, Jonathan Daly-LaBelle, a current school committee member, filed an Open Meetings Act complaint against the school committee questioning the participation of four of seven school committee members in a subcommittee meeting held Aug. 28, 2012.
In a letter sent to the attorney general’s office on March 25, Daly-LaBelle wrote, “The professional development subcommittee, in the [school committee’s] bylaws, is said to include three school committee members. There were four members in attendance and participating at this meeting – Maureen Cotter, Raissa Mosher, Elizabeth Morris and Keith Vorhaben – as noted in the meeting minutes of the Sept. 4 school committee meeting.”
The members present at the Aug. 28 professional development subcommittee meeting reported the events of that meeting to the school committee on Sept. 4.
Subcommittees are not required to keep meeting minutes, another issue of contention between Daly-LaBelle and other school committee members, so no record is kept of the meeting aside from what was reported to the school committee on Sept. 4. The minutes of the Sept. 4 meeting were approved at the school committee’s Oct. 9 meeting.
In his letter Daly-LaBelle asks, “Is a quorum of members allowed to participate in a public meeting designated as being a subcommittee meeting; a meeting posed as being conducted with less than a quorum of the primary committee?”
On April 23, Sarah Rapport, attorney for the school committee, and Maureen Cotter, school committee chair, submitted affidavits regarding the complaint, stating that in their view, there was no violation of the Open Meetings Act.
“The [school committee] disputes the suggestion by the complainant that the school committee in any way violated the Open Meetings Act on Aug. 28, 2012, when it permitted four of its members to be present for the professional development subcommittee meeting,” Rapport wrote. “Even if all four school committee members had actually participated in the subcommittee meeting, such participation by a quorum of the school committee would not have amounted to a violation of the Open Meetings Act, provided that the subcommittee did not “stray from its stated purpose into matters proper for the committee as a whole.”
Michael W. Field, assistant attorney general, agreed with Rapport in his finding dated July 25.
“… Even assuming your allegation is correct … four school committee members were in attendance and participating in the professional development subcommittee meeting, we find no evidence to support an [Open Meetings Act] violation since the subcommittee members were acting in their capacity as subcommittee members and not school committee members.”
Field cited Open Meetings Act precedent in his decision, noting a similar Open Meetings Act case involving the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee.
According to Field’s finding, the South Kingstown School Committee appropriately “define[d] precisely and in writing the purpose and scope of authority of the subcommittee,” Field wrote, quoting precedent.
Field further concluded, “It is significant to our conclusion that you raise no allegation that the professional development subcommittee discussed or otherwise considered matters outside its scope of responsibilities. Accordingly, we find no violation.”
Field also noted that Daly-LaBelle did not file a complaint until March 2013, though the alleged violation took place in August 2012 and the attorney general’s office has a statute of limitations of 180 days on such complaints, per Rhode Island General Law.
Nevertheless, since no violation was found and the school committee did not raise the complaint, the attorney general’s office still examined the complaint.
In an e-mail Friday, Daly-LaBelle said, “While I have differences with some of the details of the attorney general’s findings, I accept the ruling.”
Daly-LaBelle added that he is still concerned with the way the school committee utilizes its subcommittees.
“I continue to have concerns with this school committee using the subcommittees to control dialogue and participation, and limit the openness and transparency to the workings of the school committee and the school department,” he wrote. “My belief remains that our educational system will only achieve its optimal level when it lives up to its mission statement and works in partnership with families and the entire educational community.”
Maureen Cotter, chair of the school committee, said Monday that the finding was what the committee expected.
“The school committee and and subcommittees have acted in full compliance with [Open Meetings Act] as described in our bylaws,” Cotter wrote in an e-mail. “We were confident we were complaint with [Open Meetings Act].”
She added, “The [school committee] values the public trust. We will continue to ensure transparency and keep the focus of our work on student achievement.”
Cotter also noted that the complaint and subsequent proceedings were “costly” to the taxpayer, amounting to $3,400.
“It was also a distraction for staff taking time away from the work of supporting teaching and learning,” she said.