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Video: Town Council Hears About Conflicts of Interest, Open Meetings Act

The council held a public workshop Wednesday evening at Town Hall, where they heard from a representative of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

What gifts or services can a town councilor accept? What is the “recusal” process? What is the Open Meetings Act?

These and other questions were addressed Wednesday evening at a special workshop held at . All members of the Portsmouth Town Council were present except Michael Buddemeyer and Liz Pedro.  

Rhode Island Code of Ethics

Jason Gramitt of Portsmouth, a staff attorney and education coordinator with the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, first spoke about what creates a “conflict of interest.” To hear Gramitt’s explanation of “conflicts,” see the video at right.

“Recusal is the way you avoid the conflict of interest,” Gramitt said. “... It just means don’t participate in any part of it.”

What do you do when you have a conflict of interest? Gramitt used the hypothetical example of a councilor's sister-in-law who planned to speak at a council meeting.

“What do you do?” Gramitt asked. “You come to your meeting, you recuse yourself … when you are in recusal, you are not on the council anymore for that one agenda item. From the moment you recuse, your rights are the same as everyone out in the gray chairs.

“The code doesn’t say you have to get up from your table, but that’s best practice. If the public’s not allowed in the room, you’re not allowed in the room. If it’s closed session, you have to leave the room.”

Gramitt also spoke about the “recusal form” and the “gift rule.”

“That’s the last step, the recusal form. The code of ethics says there is one more step — you fill out a recusal form.

“The gift rule only applies to interested persons, meaning people that have a financial interest in what you are doing … The first rule is of course, no cash. That’s called bribery. As to goods and services, it used to be zero … now what the commission says is $25. A person on the council is allowed to accept a gift as long as it’s $25 or less.

“Gifts of information, even if there’s monetary value, can be an exception. For example, if someone had an interest in town matters, was hosting a seminar or day long training on something and there might be a cost for the training, that would be allowable because it’s a gift that helps you with your public duty.”

He also spoke about the “class exemption” in the case of a conflict of interest, as well as nepotism. To see more on this, view the video at right.

Len Katzman asked about the “statute of limitations" for complaints to be filed with the ethics commission.

“There is no statute of limitations,” Gramitt said. “We go by the general code of 10 years. That doesn’t mean we would welcome a nine-year-old case.”

Councilor James Seveney asked about the “closing-door policy” for former members of the town council. To see Gramitt’s answer on this question, view the video at right.

To learn more about the Rhode Island ethics code or to speak with the Ethics Commission, Gramitt welcomes residents to call the commission at (401) 222-3790 or visit www.ethics.ri.gov.

The Rhode Island Code of Ethics can also be found by clicking here.

Open Meetings Act

Town Solicitor D.A. D’Andrea also gave a presentation on the Open Meetings Act at Wednesday’s workshop.

“The open meetings law governs the conduct of public bodies,” D’Andrea said. “It also involves states authorities.”

The Open Meetings Act was created to govern and make sure public bodies "meet in public,” according to D’Andrea.

However, changes in technology and social media have changed the law in recent years. D’Andrea said a violation could take place over the Internet or through e-mail exchanges between public officials.

“With the recent amendments, the meeting doesn’t have to be a physical meeting,” said the town solicitor. “With the availability of telephones and social media, you can be in violation of the open meetings law if members are discussing matters even if you are not present in the same place.”

D’Andrea spoke about the “personnel” exceptions to the open meetings law.

“There are exceptions to the open meetings law. There are reasons you can go into executive session,” he said. “If you are going to discuss the job performance, qualifications or mental health of a person, you can go into executive session.”

The Open Meetings Act gives public bodies the option to enter into executive session for certain reasons, but officials are not required by law to hold a closed-door session. To view acceptable reasons by law to enter executive session, click here.

Executive sessions may also be called for issues “pertaining to litigation and collective bargaining.”

“The City of Newport recently went into an executive session at a meeting to discuss a contract that the city had with the Town of Middletown involving ‘potential litigation.’ You may discuss potential litigation in executive session,” he said.

Doug Smith asked if “minutes of meetings” needed to be made public.

“You need to make your minutes public," D'Andrea said. "You need to make a record of the businesses you conducted. I don’t think you have to post them (on the Secretary of State’s Web site), but I could be wrong. If I am, someone will correct me.”

To view the section pertaining to meeting minutes, click here

Jeff Richard asked what the difference was between a "recusal" and an "abstention?"

“A recusal is your stepping down … an abstention is a failure to participate in the vote,” D’Andrea said. “You may take part in the discussion. It is, as one of the city solicitors advised the school committee many years ago, it is your consent to let the others decide the issue.”

To view the Open Meetings Act in its entirety, click here.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Jason Gramitt's name.

Doug Smith April 07, 2011 at 10:25 PM
Good article on this meeting, which I found very interesting. I'm still not clear on how the RI Code of Ethics applies to appointed, rather than elected committees, many of which were represented in the audience, but it is commendable that Portsmouth requests this presentation every year.
Len Katzman April 08, 2011 at 03:43 PM
Hi Doug. I agree the meeting was good for all who attended. There are two answers to your question. First, as I gathered from Mr. Gramitt, the distinction is in whether your appointed service is on a body that can make and effect decisions, or whether the body is merely advisory. For example, Zoning Board of Review is an appointed position, not elected. But the ZBR definitely has the power to make independent decisions that have real consequences and must follow the Ethics Code. Contrast that with, for example, a hypothetical Town Hall Paint Color Choice Committee. They will be engaging in meetings, but they have no power to effect a decision -- they will advise the Town Council of their recommendations, but any final decision will be made by the Town Council. So the hypothetical Color Choice Committee probably isn't subject to the Ethics Code, it is merely advisory. That's the first answer. The second (and better) answer, also suggested by Mr. Gramitt, is to err on the side of caution and recuse yourself from discussions if a conflict exists, even if you are not technically required to by the Ethics Code. Also, you can always contact the Ethics Commission and get a definitive ruling from them on any specific set of circumstances. I'd urge anyone with any uncertainty about whether the Ethics Code applies to them to do just that. Always better to be safe than sorry.

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