Former school board member calls on council to address open meetings violation

Former school board member calls on council to address open meetings violation

WOONSOCKET – Woonsocket resident Christopher Roberts is seeking action from the City Council after the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office found the Woonsocket Board of Assessment Review in “woeful” violation of the Open Meetings Act related to its conduct at a Dec. 19 meeting.

The complaint filed by Roberts on Dec. 20 alleged that the Board of Assessment Review violated state law by convening into executive session without cause and without following the procedures outlined by the Open Meetings Act. The findings of the attorney general’s office, dated April 11, affirmed the complaint and determined that the Board of Assessment Review acted in an “inadequate and illegal way.”

“I would say it’s a pretty egregious violation,” Roberts, a former member of the School Committee, said when he addressed the matter before the City Council during a meeting on Monday. “There’s no doubt we want to thank people who volunteer to serve on our boards, but that also carries a responsibility to be familiar with these topics, I think to appreciate them and to abide by them.”

As part of the finding, the attorney general’s office required “that the Board of Review release the Dec. 19, 2017 executive session meeting minutes.” However, according to Roberts, the board has yet to comply with the state’s requirement. When he spoke with The Valley Breeze by phone last week, he confirmed the city had sent him a copy of the meeting minutes but said he had requested that the board also post the minutes, along with the open session minutes, for public viewing online.

“I said I would also appreciate if you would post them to the secretary of state’s website where they should be, because the open meetings should’ve never been an issue in the first place,” he said. “They still haven’t, to date, even posted the meeting minutes from the open session.”

State law requires that public bodies file a copy of their open session meeting minutes with the Secretary of State’s Office for inspection by the public within 35 days of the meeting.

After Roberts brought the issue before the council on Monday, the Board of Assessment Review posted a copy of the Dec. 19 open session meeting minutes, along with the proposed minutes from an April 3 meeting, on the Secretary of State’s Office website on Tuesday morning. However, the executive session meeting minutes remained closed to the public.

When asked for a copy of the executive session meeting minutes, Priscilla Steenbergen, Law Department executive secretary for the city, issued the following statement to The Breeze:

“Although the findings directed the city to forward the executive session minutes to Mr. Roberts, there was no ruling that indicated they are now public records.”

When asked for a clarification on the ruling and the release of the minutes, attorney general’s office spokeswoman Amy Kemple told The Breeze that “our finding requires release of the minutes, without qualification. They should be publicly released.”

At Monday’s meeting, Roberts also expressed concern with outdated information about city personnel and board members available on the state website and the posting of agendas by the Board of Assessment Review. He asked that council members address the concerns and ensure that members of the board are aware of and abiding by state regulations, especially as the city approaches the appeals period for the 2017 property revaluation.

“What I’m looking for is some sort of action from the City Council with regard to how this group handles appeals,” he said. “As I believe these are council appointments, I believe there is a purview here for the council to get involved.”

When asked by City Council President Daniel Gendron who was responsible for the posting of meeting minutes, City Solicitor John DeSimone said he would look into the issue.

“We can look into it so that those can get posted,” he said.

Roberts’ interest in the Dec. 19 Board of Assessment Review meeting stemmed from an ongoing lawsuit he filed against the city regarding the tax assessment of his home at 507 Rhodes Ave. as a multifamily dwelling. Roberts said he filed the lawsuit in 2017 after the Board of Assessment Review denied his appeal for his home, which includes an accessory dwelling occupied by his grandparents, to qualify for the single-family homestead exemption, as it had in previous years.

“The last thing we filed was called a motion to assign, and that essentially means that we are now waiting on a superior court to assign it to a judge,” he said.

As part of the lawsuit, Roberts is also alleging the board violated the Open Meetings Act at the March 2017 meeting when he first appealed the assessment, a separate allegation from his complaint regarding the December violation. He also has the option to pursue the December violation separately in Superior Court if he wishes, an option he said he hasn’t ruled out.

“If you’re going to sit on the board but you don’t understand the requirements for the Open Meetings Act, or you don’t care, then maybe there needs to be a change of who serves on the board,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you could continue to operate this way, it has a big impact on the credibility of the board.”