Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Law: For Little People, Not State Legislators

An unbylined story in today’s Projo, working off of a report issued by the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office, fills in some details about how the Rhode Island legislature regularly conducts the people’s business in a less-than-transparent manner…

On his way out the door, Secretary of State Matthew Brown has given state lawmakers a D grade for compliance with the law intended to keep government meetings open to the public.
  • House committees complied with the 48-hour advance notice requirements in the state’s Open Meetings Law only 57 percent of the time during the six-month legislation session that ended in late June – and that was a slight improvement over last year’s 52 percent score.
  • Senate compliance dropped from 76 percent in 2005 to 67 percent.
  • At 63 percent, this year’s overall score for the General Assembly was the lowest since 1998, when former Secretary of State James Langevin, who is now Rhode Island’s 2nd District congressman in Washington, issued “Access Denied: Chaos, Confusion and Closed Doors,” the first in a series of annual reports on legislative compliance with this centerpiece of the state’s open-government laws.
By posting no notice of a meeting, or posting a notice that goes up so late that few see it in time, a legislative committee can effectively eliminate all but lobbyists and other insiders from involvement at key points in the legislative process….
But the secretary of state’s analysis found that particular committees, on occasion, posted far more bills on a single evening’s agenda than House rules allow, and, worse, posted rolling multiday calendars that make it impossible for anyone — outside the ranks of plugged-in professional lobbyists — to know which day a bill might actually come up for a hearing.
However, in an addition to complying with already-existing public meeting laws, an equally important reform for the legislature to undertake would be to make committee proceedings (especially vote tallies on amendments and motions to kill bills) available online.
The professional staff of the Rhode Island legislature does an excellent job of making the details of floor proceedings available in widely accessable electronic form in a timely manner. They should be allowed to expand their role and apply their knowledge and experience in fast-reporting of legislative activities to committee actions, so the public can more easily learn who has supported what during the committee process.

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17 years ago

The problem isn’t really the late notice provided for legislative hearings. It’s that most of the decisions are made in advance of any hearings essentially making the hearings “dog and pony” shows.

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