The News Service
Attorney General’s opinion
Committee on smoke shop raid must comply with Open Meeting Act
The Independent Review Committee, appointed by G. Carcieri to study the State Police raid on a tax-free smoke shop operated by the Narragansett tribe, is subject to Rhode Island’s Open Meeting Act, according to an opinion released today by the Rhode Island attorney general.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — At midday today (Friday, March 26, 2004), the University’s Office of the Vice President and General Counsel received a copy of an opinion by the Rhode Island attorney general involving the Independent Review Committee chaired by Brown President Ruth J. Simmons last summer and fall. The committee had been appointed by Gov. Donald Carcieri to review the Rhode Island State Police raid on the Narragansett tribe’s tax-free smoke shop.
In the opinion, issued to Robert Oliveira of the Campaign for the Future of Newport County, who filed the original complaint Sept. 4, 2003, the attorney general held that the work of the Independent Review Committee is subject to the state’s Open Meeting Act (OMA). As such, the Independent Review Committee must make its records available to the public, including minutes of all public and executive sessions and records of any votes taken. The committee forwarded all its materials to Gov. Carcieri last fall after it had completed its work.
“The Independent Review Committee carried out its work with full faith that it was serving the public interest,” Simmons said. “It took great pains to announce its meetings to the public, to invite coverage by media, and to solicit questions and testimony from persons in attendance. I am pleased that the attorney general has recognized those efforts. His opinion acknowledges the committee’s good-faith efforts to secure an independent legal opinion on the applicability of the Open Meeting Act.”
In a letter to the attorney general’s office last fall, Simmons noted that she and all members of the committee volunteered their time and effort and neither sought nor received any public funding or services as they did their work. “From the outset, it was our understanding that we were not ‘a public body’ and not discharging a function of government,” Simmons wrote. The attorney general’s opinion acknowledged that this was a “close case” and that there is little clear guidance on the issues.
In her letter last fall, Simmons also cautioned the attorney general about the dampening effect an adverse ruling might have on the willingness of Rhode Island citizens to serve on any future advisory panels. “Had we thought that our work was subject to the Open Meeting Act, our process would have been quite different and, in my opinion, could have affected the quality of our effort,” Simmons wrote. “... While the Committee’s work is now over, I hope you will take these considerations into account ... as your conclusions concerning this Independent Review Committee may well affect the recruitment and performance of other similar committees in the future.”
In the opinion, the attorney general calls upon the Committee to submit or reconstruct minutes of its meetings in order to complete the public record and allows a 60-day period for this to occur. “We have received the opinion and will discuss how we might possibly address the concerns raised by the attorney general,” Simmons said.