EAST GREENWICH—The attorney general found that the school committee committed a technical violation of the Open Meetings Act (OMA) in its handling of the nearly decade-long Sarah’s Trace saga, in which three homes were seriously damaged by the construction of Cole Middle School. The finding stated that there was no evidence the violation was intentional, but will serve as cause to believe future infractions are.
“[The evidence] does not support a finding of a willful or knowing violation,” Attorney General Peter Neronha wrote in his finding. “However, this finding serves as notice that the conduct discussed herein violates the OMA and may serve as evidence of a willful or a knowing violation in any similar future situation.”
The path by which the school committee arrived at this moment is Byzantine at best and outright tenebrous at worst. Back in 2011 when Cole Middle School was being constructed, three homes in Sarah’s Trace, neighboring the new school, were damaged by the construction. Numerous attempts by homeowners there, led by Christopher Lamendola, have attempted to take action against the district since in numerous ways from seeking damages to alleging corruption.
Back in 2015, the town was found to be at fault for the damages and ordered to pay $240K in damages. That amount, according to the homeowners, pales in comparison to the actual damage done, and Lamendola has since attempted to have the real valuation of the homes reduced to $0 to reflect that the cost to repair the homes actually exceed their fair market value. Lamendola and his wife Susan, as well as their neighbors Thomas Hogan and Cynthia Peloso, also argued in an open letter that the $600K in legal representation they accrued should be paid for by the town.
In 2019, the effort was renewed as Lamendola raised concerns that Gilbane Building Company, the construction company used in the building of Cole, and their legal representation, had been hired in violation of the open meetings act and possibly involved in corruption owing to shared contacts between the school committee and the company.
Fast forward to August, 2019, when the school committee held an executive session during which they addressed a “Requested Staff Investigation” in response to Lamendola allegations. Lamendola contended that the meeting violated the OMA by not identifying who made the request to investigate nor who was to be investigated. The school committee countered that the accused held a right to privacy that outweighed the public’s need to know their identity. The attorney general sided with the committee on this issue.
Where the attorney general could not condone the actions of the school committee, however, was in their decision to withhold information about the nature of their executive session vote, simply stating that “a vote was taken in executive session.” While all parties involved in the matter were informed of the nature of the vote in writing, and while the omission was carried out as a courtesy to Lamendola since he was the one to raise the issue, the failure to publicly disclose the nature of that vote was a technical violation of the OMA.
“Based on our in camera review of the August 13 executive session minutes, the School Committee took a vote which was reported out in open session as ‘a vote was taken in executive session regarding a staff investigation. The vote was 7-0.’” The attorney general’s report read. “The School Committee did not describe the substance or nature of the vote in open session.”
“Although it is arguable that delaying full disclosure of the vote was necessary for strategic reasons, the School Committee did not provide evidence that it publicly disclosed the vote,” Neronha added, “and no such subsequent disclosure is apparent to us based on the publicly filed meeting minutes. We find that the School Committee’s failure to subsequently disclose the nature of this vote violated the OMA.”
Lamendola also issued five other complaints concerning the school committee’s adherence to the OMA as well as an Access to Public Records Act violation. Neronha found the school committee’s actions regarding each of those allegations to be in accordance with state and national laws.