NARRAGANSETT – The Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office issued a recent finding that the Narragansett Town Council violated the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) multiple times during the council’s town manager selection process over the summer. As a result of the finding, the town council is now required to unseal certain portions of executive session meeting minutes as well as disclose any votes, consensuses or decisions the body reached during executive sessions in violation that were not previously disclosed to the public in an open meeting setting.
According to OMA, executive sessions, or legal meetings closed to the public, can be convened for a number of purposes, including a public body’s hiring of an individual, which encompasses interviews of applicants for a position. The Attorney General’s Office has in the past, however, found that certain interview-related and hiring matters are inappropriate for executive sessions as outlined in the OMA. In its finding pertaining to the Narragansett Town Council, the Attorney General’s Office affirmed this position, and stated the council engaged in discussions during executive sessions that violated the law.
“However, our review also reveals that during each of these executive session meetings, the Council also discussed other matters related to the Town Manager position, such as how to proceed with advertising the position, collecting resumes, and scheduling interviews for the position, as well as how the Council would determine which applicants to interview and how to proceed if a Councilmember was contacted by an applicant,” the finding, dated Nov. 29, reads. “Additionally, at the July 8, 2019 executive session, the Council discussed potential contract terms for the position. Discussion of these topics - which did not pertain to any individual applicant's job performance or qualifications - in executive session pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-46-5(a)(l) violated the OMA.”
The matter was pursued by the Attorney General’s Office after several individuals filed OMA violation complaints over the town council’s town manager selection process. In an open meeting on Aug. 26, the council unanimously appointed James Tierney to the position.
Despite the OMA’s provision that the Attorney General’s Office may file suit in Superior Court over the violation, the recent Narragansett Town Council finding stated no such action would be taken at this time, however, legal action could become necessary if the council fails to comply with requirements set forth in the finding.
As a result of the multiple violations, the town council will be required to unseal executive session meeting minutes for its May 31, 2019, June 5, 2019, June 24, 2019, June 29, 2019 and July 8, 2019 meetings that do not pertain directly to an individuals' job performance or qualifications, as well as unseal minutes from executive sessions taking place on July 15, 2019, July 22, 2019, and July 29, 2019. The council must also report any votes, consensuses or decisions the body made in executive sessions that were not then reported at a subsequent public meeting. Evidence of the unsealing of the minutes and reporting of any votes, consensuses and decisions are also required to be presented to the Attorney General’s Office within five business days of the issuance of the finding.
“Although the Attorney General will not file suit in this matter at this time, filing suit may become necessary if the Council does not comply with the directives set forth in this finding,” the document reads.
In a statement, Narragansett Town Council President Matthew Mannix said the town had unsealed the requested executive session minutes today and said one of the complainants, Melissa Jenkins, was a candidate for the Narragansett Town Manager position.
“The complainant, Melissa Jenkins, applied for the Town Manager position and apparently filed her complaint with the Attorney General to undo the hiring of Jim Tierney as Town Manager," he said. "The Attorney General directed the town to release the minutes regarding the town manager hiring process and the town complied with that directive today."
"These minutes show that the town conducted a fair and professional interview process that led to the selection of a deeply qualified candidate - Jim Tierney," Mannix continued. "Melissa Jenkins, by contrast, is a professional troublemaker.”
Three individuals, including Jenkins, filed complaints with the Attorney General's Office over the council's recent town manager selection process.
In a detailed response, Jenkins said she did apply for the town manager position in June, but only after hearing the council had conducted interviews for the role without advertising the opening.
"It was clear that they planned to hire an insider in a backroom deal," she said. "This seemed fundamentally wrong, not to mention noncompliant with equal opportunity employment practices and laws. As a woman with a postdoctoral level of education and extensive business and healthcare management experience, I wondered what would happen if I applied for the job - so I did. I am a Narragansett resident and met all of the posted requirements for the job-but was never contacted at all about it. I never even received notice that I was not hired until I specifically requested it. All meetings related to the hiring process were held in executive session, which clearly violates the Open Meetings Act."
Jenkins also stated that the town's last three managers were formerly employed in law enforcement before coming to Narragansett (Tierney, a former lieutenant in the South Kingstown Police Department; Sean Corrigan, current Narragansett Police Chief who served as acting town manager from February to Tierney's appointment in September; and former manager James Manni, a retired state trooper and current superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police who served as Narragansett Town Manager from 2016 until January of this year. Jenkins noted the general position of a police chief is rarely held by women.
"All in all, the process and the manner in which the last few town managers were chosen seems biased against women and other diverse candidates who may be well qualified in management but lack police experience," said Jenkins. "The process was deeply flawed, and needs to change. I specifically dispute Mr. Mannix’s statement that my complaint was intended to undo the hiring of Mr. Tierney; my complaint about the secrecy of the process specifically and simply requested that the executive session minutes be made public, so that the public can understand how their business is being conducted and how their town manager was selected. Making the executive session minutes public is the only remedy that I requested."
"It is not fair or transparent to interview or select candidates before posting a job, to systematically exclude women and people of color, or to improperly hold meetings in executive session that are required by law to be open to the public," Jenkins added.
Prior to Manni, Pamela Nolan, who had previously held town manager positions throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts, served as Narragansett Town Manager from 2013 until her death in early 2016.
"I am a community activist and advocate for transparency in government, and the goal of my complaint was simply to remove the secrecy from the process," Jenkins concluded. "Then the public can evaluate the seriousness of the issues and whether further remedies are appropriate. I am very grateful to the Attorney General’s office for enforcing the Open Meetings Act and requiring the Narragansett Town Council to shed light on a process that should have been public from the start."