WARWICK, RI — The Warwick School Committee has begun remote meetings online following Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s March 16 executive order approved the practice to preserve government during the COVID-19 outbreak, and the Warwick City Council will follow suit.
Warwick’s public bodies are bound by Raimondo’s guidance preserving transparency, added at the urging of the ACLU of RI and Common Cause Rhode Island in a March 19 letter.
The letter urged city and town leaders in RI to ensure that their municipalities’ public bodies are aware of, and conforming to, the new standards for transparency set forth by the EO and the Guidance, including:
- Holding remote meetings only if they are necessary for continued government operations
- Requiring audio and/or video coverage of the meetings and suspending meetings when that coverage is interrupted
- Having meeting attendees identify themselves prior to speaking
- Where possible, posting on the public body’s website in advance any documents to be presented at the meeting.
The School Committee has since held three remote meetings. The Warwick City Council will begin remote meetings in May.
“In an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, the recently released executive order from the ACLU suspended certain provisions of the state’s Open Meetings Act, and most public bodies have since started holding their meetings remotely,” The ACLU of RI stated in an April 8 press release.
While the ACLU acknowledged the need for flexibility in governance during the outbreak, it cautioned that now, more than ever, the public’s right to oversee the work of its government officials and municipal bodies is critical.
“Particularly in times of emergency and crisis, government transparency is more critical than ever,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.
“In recognizing that public bodies need to meet remotely during this pandemic, we believe it is essential that the public be able to monitor meetings and participate to the maximum extent possible. The public needs better access to information, not less, in times like these.”
He added, “We hope that once this crisis is over, all public bodies will recognize that allowing the public to access meetings, both remotely and in-person, is easy to do and helpful to both the government and its residents in promoting the public’s right to know.”
David Testa, Warwick School Committee Member, explained that to date, the School Committee has held three remote meetings using Zoom teleconferencing software.
“The impetus for this was the virus, otherwise, we’d be meeting in person like we used to. We have to have meetings because we have business to conduct, so a virtual environment is the only option available to accomplish that,” Testa said.
“That said, a virtual meeting is still a public meeting, so we make efforts to solicit public comment (even though by law, public comment is not a requirement) and we ‘simulcast’ our meetings live on YouTube,” he added.
Testa said the public deserves to see and/or hear their elected officials have public meetings, and that the novel coronavirus outbreak is not a good enough reason for elected public bodies to not meet.
“In 2020, all should have access to that technology [teleconferencing meetings]. In my opinion, virtual meetings are not as good as in-person, face-to-face meetings, but having said that, I think ours have gone fairly well so far. It’s kind of like making lemonade out of lemons.” Testa said.
Public bodies also need to keep in mind their obligation to inform residents remotely during the pandemic, Warwick City Council member Jeremy Rix said.
“It’s important that we continue to perform the business of the City Council, while ensuring safety, and at the same time give the public the opportunity to participate in our meetings,” Rix said.
He added, “It’s going to be our first time holding any sort of remote meetings, so it’s not necessarily going to be an easy process, but I have confidence that everyone will work together to make it successful.”
Steve Merolla, Warwick City Council president, explained that by ordinance and charter, the Mayor has to give the Council the budget by May 17, which would make the week of Memorial Day the date for the first budget hearing.
However, the Council is planning to hold a May meeting remotely prior to that. The date, time and remote platform for that meeting has not been set yet.
City Council members have met with the city’s IT department and are currently in the midst of mapping out a strategy and exploring options for upcoming remote meetings.
“This has all been a very daunting task,” said Merolla. “Trying to figure out a budget and putting together remote meetings, during a pandemic.”
He added, “We don’t know how much funding we will be getting from the state or federal government and the school committee has not finalized their budget at this point, so there are a lot of uncertainties at this time.”
Information about the specific time, date and digital platform of the City Council meetings will be available at the city of Warwick’s website.