Newly-elected Ward 8 City Councilman Anthony Sinapi has brought suit against the Warwick School Committee, and specifically against chairwoman Bethany Furtado, for an alleged open meetings law violation that dates back to a meeting held in September of 2017.
In addition, the filing includes allegations that the committee did not provide proper notice or adequate explanations to the public in regards to what items would actually be discussed in executive session and that the committee used “placeholder” items in order to be purposefully broad on the agenda while enabling the committee to discuss more specific issues than advertised. School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado has denied intentionally violating open meetings law.
A complaint filed in Kent County Superior Court on Aug. 29 details the allegation that, during an executive session of the Sept. 12, 2017 meeting of the school committee, the committee discussed a matter pertaining to a Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) decision regarding a parent’s request for the district to create a new, less dangerous bus stop for their child. That discussion item was not properly advertised on the agenda, the suit claims.
This, according to the suit, should be considered a clear violation of the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act (OMA) as outlined in Rhode Island General Laws Section 42-46-6(b), which states that public bodies must post notice within 48 hours of a public meeting “specifying the nature of the business to be discussed.”
Sinapi first brought his complaint to the Attorney General’s Office last year. They finalized their investigation into the complaint on May 31, 2018 with the conclusion that the Warwick School Committee did indeed violate the OMA when it discussed the RIDE decision during the meeting, as they found committee had been made aware of RIDE’s decision to grant the parent’s request for a new bus stop on Sept. 7, 2017 – the same day the agenda was to be drafted for the Sept. 12 meeting.
In another exhibit listed within the summons, through the school committee’s legal counsel Andrew Henneous, the school committee responded to the Attorney General investigation that they did not conclude discussions with legal counsel regarding the RIDE decision until Sept. 11, and therefore did not have 48 hours of notice to amend the agenda. The Attorney General’s Office questioned this rationale in their conclusion.
“It is unclear to this Department why the School Committee could not have scheduled a special meeting to discuss the RIDE decision and potential appeal,” reads the investigation report from Lisa Pinsonneault, Special Assistant Attorney General. “The discussion of this non-noticed item in executive session violated the OMA.”
Despite their finding that the committee was in violation of the OMA, the Attorney General’s Office concluded it would not be taking punitive action or pursuing further action in court, as “we are not persuaded that the School Committee knowingly or willfully violated the OMA.” The school committee could have faced an up to $5,000 fine for this type of violation.
The Attorney General’s Office did, however, request that the school committee provide the office with agendas and executive session minutes from its February and March meetings in 2018 for more review.
“Should additional similar violations be found, this Office does not rule out taking appropriate action, nor does this Office rule out future unannounced requests for similar agendas and executive session minutes to review,” concludes the report from Pinsonneault.
Use of “placeholders” items questioned
Another large piece of the suit is the allegation that the Warwick School Committee utilized “placeholder” agenda items in order to discuss specific topics in executive session without alerting the public as to what will be discussed on the meeting agenda.
Included as an exhibit in the filing is the agenda in question from Sept. 12, which lists four items for discussion under the executive session docket portion. Items 1-3 are categorized by the summons as overly broad, written as simply “Personnel Matters”; “Collective Bargaining”; and “Litigation/Legal Advice” without any subtext or additional explanation as to what those items may entail.
“For each of those generic topics, there was no explanation whatsoever as to the matter to be discussed, such as a case name or the union for which collective bargaining was to be discussed…At the time the agenda was published, there was no subject matter which the School Committee intended to discuss in relation to any of the generic topics,” the complaint within the Superior Court filing reads.
In the official response to Sinapi’s complaint to the Attorney General’s Office back in 2017, Furtado explained how these broad topics are used for “essentially all Warwick School Committee meetings as ‘placeholders,’” and that, “It does not mean that these issues will actually be discussed in Executive Session.”
Furtado said that if there is to be a matter under one of these placeholders discussed, more specific information will be provided, as was the case for the fourth item in the Sept. 12 meeting regarding a Warwick Teachers’ Union interest arbitration topic.
Sinapi was dissatisfied with the response, as outlined by another exhibit showing an email where he claimed in response to Furtado’s explanation that, "The School Committee, whether it intended to or not, mislead (and continues to mislead) the public every time its agenda contains 'placeholders' to be discussed in executive session."
As part of its investigation, the Attorney General’s Office disapproved of the use of “placeholder” type agenda items, saying that, “the so-called ‘placeholder’ could be used to discuss, and presumably vote upon, a matter that had arisen after the posting of the agenda.” However, the investigation also concluded that the committee did not discuss anything under these specific placeholders that required advanced notice to the public during executive session of the Sept. 12 meeting.
In a statement sent on Monday, Furtado said:
“There was no intent to mislead or be overly broad with the placeholders. If an item came up that needed to be discussed, those items would be placed on the agenda in a timely manner. The agenda at issue in this matter, there were four such placeholders. The first three were not even discussed as there were no items, and the fourth had proper advertisement. There was a legal question that came up during executive session – which the AG found was a proper matter to be discussed in executive session – however, it was not properly advertised on the agenda as it was a question about a decision that was issued the day of the meeting giving no time to amend the executive session agenda.
“The School Committee has discontinued the practice of using placeholders on the agenda,” she continued. “That said, the Attorney General’s Office has reviewed this complaint and determined that it was not a ‘knowing or willful violation’ and chose not to pursue the matter in court.”
In the filing, Sinapi is pursuing a declaratory judgment from the courts regarding the OMA violation and civil penalties against the defendants for “each willful and/or knowing violation of OMA…” as well as an award of “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of litigation to Plaintiff…” and “Such other and further relief as this Court deems just and proper.”
Sinapi said during an interview on Monday that the suit was not about winning any money – as he is only seeking compensation towards the cost to litigate – but is about holding the school committee accountable to the public.
“I want to make sure that this stops happening,” he said. “There’s more than one way to have oversight over the school committee. This is one of them, and unfortunately I don’t think it has been utilized enough.”
This filing is the second complaint related to an alleged open meetings law violation brought forth by Sinapi against the Warwick School Committee. He filed another suit against the committee and Warwick School Department on Feb. 1, 2017 related to how the committee proceeded with its plans for school consolidation.
Although the summons was prepared on Aug. 29, it was not served until Sept. 25. Sinapi said waiting until after the primary election – an election in which he defeated Furtado for City Council in Ward 8 – was purposeful, as he wanted to avoid the perception that the lawsuit was based in politics.