PROVIDENCE — Open government advocates on Friday criticized Governor Daniel J. McKee for issuing an executive order that allows public meetings to take place online for another month but no longer requires remote access for many in-person meetings.
“If members of the public body convene in person, and the public is permitted to attend in person, the public body may still provide adequate, alternative means for public access and/or participation, but is not required to do so,” the new order states.
The order takes effect immediately and remains in effect until March 19.
McKee’s press secretary, Alana O’Hare, said the new executive order reflects the reduction in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and a request from municipal leaders to return to having the ability to return to in-person meetings. She said noted that McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, remains in frequent contact with mayors and other municipal leaders.
“There was a general consensus that they were ready to go back to a sense of normalcy with in-person meetings again – to have that ability,” O’Hare said. “It gives all the public bodies the option to hold fully in-person meetings if they chose to, whereas before today that was not an option.”
But Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said Rhode Island has seen the benefits of remote access and participation for those unable to attend in-person meetings over the past two years.
“Under this order, those concerned about COVID and choosing not to attend meetings can be shut out entirely,” Silverman said. “Those with disabilities, family commitments, work obligations, and other conflicts can also be denied access. Remote participation is not only about safety, but also about equity. This order simply doesn’t go far enough to guarantee the access we need.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said, “Taking a step back from the executive orders issued for 18 of the last 24 months takes away the ability of the public to watch their government work. There’s still a pandemic out there that will make people choose between showing up in person and risking their health or not participating their government.”
But Marion said public bodies will still have to offer remote access to meetings if another law, other than the state Open Meetings Act, requires public participation in meetings. So, for example, many planning and zoning boards have underlying laws that will force them to offer remote participation, he said.
Marion said that ultimately the General Assembly will need to adopt a long-term policy, and Common Cause advocates for allowing remote access to the public permanently. “Even though remote access was not required before the pandemic, it is something we have learned has a benefit even in normal times because it increases participation in government,” he said.
O’Hare noted that the governor will no longer have an emergency executive powers related to the pandemic after March 31. And she noted that the governor had previously said he is committed to transparency but is encouraging legislators to craft a long-term solution.
In early January, McKee signed an executive order to allow remote meetings of public bodies through Feb. 4 due to the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island.
The ACCESS/RI coalition had called for McKee to reinstate an order requiring live-streaming of public meetings and remote public participation, calling it “a matter of great urgency for open government.” The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Common Cause Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Press Association, and the New England First Amendment Coalition.
In response, McKee’s office had said, “The governor is fully committed to transparency and open government, especially during the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, we do have a three branch system of government, and the governor has been committed to using his unilateral, executive authority in a limited capacity. "
McKee’s office noted the Department of Business Regulation has backed legislation that would amend the Open Meetings Act to provide for greater virtual access to public meetings until July 1.
On Feb. 2, Representative Terri Cortvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat, introduced a bill that would amend the Open Meetings Act to allow public bodies the option to hold in-person, virtual or hybrid open meetings, and would provide for virtual public access in cases where a public body chooses to hold a virtual or hybrid open meeting until July 1.