PROVIDENCE — The Equity Council serves an important function: ensuring that the state’s COVID-19 strategies address “the specific needs of the communities most impacted by the pandemic,” including “communities of color, high-density areas, and low-income neighborhoods.”
But a reporter was recently prevented from watching an Equity Council meeting via Zoom, and a spokeswoman for Governor Daniel J. McKee told Lynn Arditi, a health reporter for The Public’s Radio, that, “These meetings have not been open to the public.”
So Arditi filed a complaint with Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office, alleging a violation of the Open Meetings Act, noting state law defines a “meeting” as “the convening of a public body to discuss and/or act upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.”
“As a health reporter who is covering the vaccine rollout, it is critical that I am permitted access to cover the deliberations regarding vaccine equity so that I can keep the public informed,” Arditi wrote.
She described the Equity Council as a “public body,” noting that 12 of the 27 members “are state officials serving in their official capacity” and that it was created by former governor Gina M. Raimondo.
But Lisa M. Martinelli, a lawyer for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, is urging the attorney general to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the Equity Council doesn’t meet the legal definition of a “public body” because it was not formed by executive order or regulation and doesn’t have bylaws or a charter.
Also, Martinelli said the Equity Council “does not have any supervisory authority over the governor’s management of pandemic responses.” Rather, she said, the Equity Council “operates as an informal, strictly advisory committee to facilitate discussion of the pandemic effects on the minority community and to elevate discussions to the governor concerning additional health and safety needs and outreach necessary to assist this community.”
While some of the members are senior state employees, “many members are community leaders and stakeholders,” she wrote.
Martinelli acknowledged that the Equity Council continues to post agendas and minutes after each meeting on the Executive Office of Health and Human Services website “in the interest of transparency.” But, she said, that activity is not enough to make the council a “public body.”
And in a footnote, Martinelli said she received an “off the record” opinion from the attorney general’s Open Government Unit “regarding the inapplicability of the (Open Meetings Act) to a hypothetical committee like the (Equity Council).”
But John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the question of whether the Equity Council is a public body is “not cut and dried” matter, and it requires a “fact-specific analysis.”
The state is correct, for example, in noting the Equity Council was not created by executive order or by law, Marion said. But some factors “weigh heavily against the state’s case,” he said.
For instance, the council was created by a government official, Marion noted. And while the state says those attending meetings can vary by the topics discussed, he noted council membership is listed on a government website and its agenda and minutes are published on a state website. “Why publish agendas and minutes if it’s a private meeting?” he said.
Ultimately, it will be the attorney general’s office to decide whether it thinks the Open Meetings Act has been violated. But Marion emphasized that nothing prevents the state from letting the public watch Equity Council meetings.
“It’s clear the topic of racial equity in this moment of racial reckoning and a pandemic that has laid bare the racial inequities in our society is an important topic,” Marion said. “This is an important body of public and civic leaders that should be transparent.”
One Equity Council member, Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, agreed.
“I think it should be open to the public,” he said Thursday. “While it doesn’t have any authority to implement or execute on ideas, the Equity Council ultimately serves as a liaison for the community voice. Without transparency, there could be a disconnect between what’s advised on the council and what the community wants.”
Muñoz, who has announced he will run for governor in 2022, said, “The Equity Council is the only lens the community has into what the administration is doing. If this is not open to the public, it kind of defeats the purpose of it.”
He also challenged the idea that the Equity Council is merely advisory.
Equity Council members used their own resources and networks to help the state organize pop-up COVID-19 testing sites and mass vaccination clinics aimed at boosting vaccination rates among people of color, Muñoz said. “We have served as an operative body as well,” he said.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said, “Secret meetings among state officials do little to reassure the public. Only through a transparent process can Rhode Islanders fully trust that those communities hit hardest during the pandemic will get the help they need.”