Expanded Open Meetings Lawsuit Filed Against Barrington School Committee

September 30, 2009 12:00 am

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The Rhode Island ACLU and The Barrington Times have today filed new claims in a pending lawsuit against the Barrington School Committee, alleging additional and repeated Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations.

The original suit, filed last month, challenged the school committee for unlawfully meeting in closed session this past February to discuss the merits of instituting a mandatory breathalyzer policy for all students attending school dances. In the amended lawsuit filed today by RI ACLU cooperating attorneys Howard Merten and Keith Fayan of Partridge Snow & Hahn, LLP, the ACLU and the Times further charge that the school committee, by using “vague boilerplate terminology, … routinely fails to specify the nature of the business to be discussed on public agendas,” and has also failed to provide adequate public notice of some of its meetings.

Many of the school committee’s agendas contain such items as “Discussion [of] School Committee Policies,” without providing any specificity of the actual policies that might be discussed at the meeting. As a result, the suit claims, “any particular agenda is often indistinguishable from the next with regard to the discussion of school department policies.” The suit includes as an appendix copies of agendas from other school committees in the state that provide specific information about their agenda items as the OMA requires. The OMA also requires public bodies to submit in advance notices of meetings to a Secretary of State website. However, the amended suit also claims that, on at least a few occasions, Barrington school committee agendas were not posted on that website.

As with the complaint filed last month, the suit seeks a court order declaring that the school committee’s actions violate the OMA, an award of attorneys’ fees and imposition of a fine against the school committee for violating the law. The amended complaint further seeks a court order requiring the school committee to comply with the OMA’s requirements governing the specificity of agendas and the advance posting of meeting notices with the Secretary of State.

Scott Pickering, managing editor of East Bay Newspapers, said today: “I don’t believe the school committee is acting maliciously or deliberately in these cases, but the net effect of these vague agendas is that the public is never fully informed of what they will be talking about and when. It’s an indirect way of shutting out the public from the important business of public education in Barrington.” RI ACLU volunteer attorney Merten added: “The whole purpose of requiring public bodies to provide notice is to let the public know ahead of time just what business and issues will be addressed at their meetings. The Barrington School Committee agendas, with their cookie-cutter notices, utterly fail to do that. The law requires that notices actually inform the public of the specific nature of the business to be conducted. This lawsuit is intended to enforce that common sense statutory requirement.”

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