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In Light Of AG Opinion, Phongsavanh Delivers Lesson On Transparency

State Attorney General advises the Woonsocket Education Department that the Open Meetings Act applies to subcommittees.

What began as a request for a list of the members chosen to serve on the subcommittee to select Woonsocket's new superintendent, has led to a lesson in open government for the Woonsocket Education Department.

At Wednesday night's School Committee meeting, Attorney Richard Ackerman delivered the opinion of the State Attorney General's office regarding whether or not subcommittees are subject to the Open Meetings Act. His brief presentation of the much-debated verdict brought laughter from the audience of parents and educators.

"They are." Ackerman said.

The opinion was given as an answer to a conflict which first began in June when committee members Vimala Phongsavanh and Anita McGuire-Forcier questioned the process for hiring an interim superintendent to replace Dr. Robert Gerardi, who left Woonsocket for a position in Maynard, MA.

As members of the subcommittee that handles matters related to personnel, committee members Eleanor Nadeau and Linda Majewki facilitated the process which resulted in the recommendation of Susan Lusi as Gerardi's short-term replacement. At the June 8 meeting of the committee, Phongsavanh pointed out that she was expected to vote on Lusi's hire, but she had yet to see the candidate's resume.

McGuire-Forcier, meanwhile, went to the McFee Administration building, and researched all of the candidates independently, a procedure which Nadeau alleged was "highly improper."

"Information needs to be shared," said McGuire-Forcier of the initial process. "Subcommittees are open to the public."

Though Lusi ultimately turned down the position for a longer interim spot in Providence, the incident spawned a debate regarding the laws governing subcommittees that was to last for more than three months.

Phongsavanh and McGuire-Forcier voted against , who ultimately ended up serving the district over the summer, Dr. Collette Trailor, questioning the need for selecting a high-paid interim ($538 a day,) over a temporary increase of the duties of the Director of Instruction and Administration, Marc Garceau.

The conflict in the department only escalated throughout the search for a permanent replacement. As Majewski and Nadeau chose education leaders and members of the public to serve on a "search subcommittee" slated to interview potential hires, Phongsavanh alleged that the group was being hand-picked and pointed out that the without committee approval.

Her requests for the list of search subcommittee members in early July did not produce immediate results.  At the July 13 School Committee meeting, Nadeau and Majewski stated that the list of search committee members would be made public once it was finalized. But on July 22, when , Phongsavanh had still not received the document.

The incident prompted to the committee regarding the Open Meetings Act (OMA.) OMA is a chapter of the Rhode Island General Laws designed to ensure that government actions are conducted in an open manner to allow public participation in government. When Phongsavanh finally received the list of search subcommittee members in an email labeled "confidential," to the media.

Committee Chairman Marc Dubois initially stated that he did not believe OMA, which requires that all meeting agendas of government bodies be made public and that the minutes of all meetings be kept, applied to the search subcommittee. Nadeau said a desire for privacy among 16 members of the committee was her reason for expecting confidentiality.

The debate continued even after as Woonsocket's new superintendent. During a School Committee meeting on Aug. 24, Alex Kithes, a member of the search subcommittee that had chosen Donoyan, presented his findings regarding the common processes of subcommittees across the state.

Of the 23 districts he was able to contact, "Only two of them, less than 9% have conducted their superintendent search entirely in open session," Kithes told the committee. 65% had conducted all of their meetings in closed session. "While the actions of other committees do not necessarily constitute law, I'd be hard pressed to argue that our superintendent search process was in any way inappropriate or illegal, at least in the State of Rhode Island."  

With the Attorney General's opinion finally given Wednesday night, Phongsavanh used the opportunity to deliver a presentation on open government and recommend that the department limit the use of subcommittees. Woonsocket currently has 19 subcommittees addressing everything from school uniforms to technology, a system Phongsavanh described as inefficient.

The committeewoman delivered a map for open government in education Wednesday night including the "who, what and how" to implement it. Her recommendations included a reorganization of subcommittees and the development of a policy for how subcommittees operate. A pdf of her presentation is attached above.

"We need to have a uniform policy for how subcommittees work," Phongsavanh said. "There aren't rules, so we can follow them, and then future school committees can follow them."

Editor's note: In the fourth to last paragraph, the word "highly," has been changed to "hard," to properly reflect the comments of Alex Kithes.

Alex Kithes September 22, 2011 at 09:41 PM
Although I do admire Ms. Phongsavanh's persistence, I'm sorry to say that she is actually not right. I have, I believe, argued and explained this point more than any person could ever want to, but what I must yet again stress (as I did when I spoke a few weeks ago) is that, while Attorney Ackerman is exactly right when he says that all subcommittees are subject to the Open Meetings Act, the conclusions drawn from this fact by Committeewoman Phongsavanh should be reexamined. Taking that all subcommittees are subject to the Open Meetings Act, Rhode Island General Law Chapter 42-46, it is logical to assume that they are subject to all sections of this act. Because Chapter 42-46 contains a section (42-46-5) entitled "Purposes for which meeting may be closed", and because, as we have established, every part of the Open Meetings Act must be applied to every subcommittee, it is only logical to assume that the Personel Subcommittee should be tested against the contents of this section in order to determine whether it can hold closed meetings. Using the same logic as above, every part of this section should be examined in the context of the purpose of the subcommittee, to see if we can find a match. And, lo and behold, subsection (1) states that a public body may hold a closed meeting for the purpose of "any discussions of the job performance, character, or physical or mental health of a person or persons". See, logic can be our friend.
Alex Kithes September 22, 2011 at 09:48 PM
As a side note, the only reason I am stressing this argument is that I believe the events preceding the subcommittee's announcement of its recommendation could potentially have tainted or harmed the process or people involved. The releasing of the names of the candidates put them at risk, the releasing of the list of subcommittee members invited into the process more external biases than the subcommittee was equipped to handle, and, to speak very plainly, the process is time-tested, and has brought to our district great individuals, including but definitely not limited to Dr. Gerardi and Dr. Donoyan. At least from my perspective, to see one individual cause so many problems for the hiring process, the subcommittee members, and, most importantly, the candidates, when I firmly believe (and have evidence on which to base the belief) that the search is fair and balanced and that this individual is wrong to be doing so, I feel I must stand up. That's all.
Sandy Phaneuf September 22, 2011 at 09:58 PM
Alex, Please correct me if I'm wrong here but I don't believe Ms. Phongsavanh's issue was ever that every meeting needed to be held in open session. The specific OMA violations were that #1 Meeting agendas need to be posted (this also applies to meetings held in executive session - it's about making the public aware, at least generally, of the actions being taken on their behalf) and # 2 Minutes must be kept. More broadly, there is the question of receiving the names of those selected to serve on a public body - her original issue. Have you, in your research, found an exemption which would allow these names to be kept confidential? I have not. I don't believe I ever heard the committeewoman object to a meeting being held in executive session, but perhaps I missed something?
Vimala Phongsavanh September 23, 2011 at 12:28 PM
Alex, I respect your opinion and the research you conducted but the issue at hand was never about conducting the interviews in open session; I’m not sure why you believe that to be the case. I am aware of RIGL 42-46-5. I know that most personnel issues are taken care of in executive session but I also know that the public deserves to be informed of when interviews for the district’s education leader are taking place- open or closed. At least the School Committee deserves to know when interviews are taking place (Chariman Dubois, Committeewoman McGuire-Forcier and I did not know). I respectfully disagree with you regarding the release of the subcommittee members' names. All public bodies serve the public one way or another and as such the public has the right to know who those people are. Also, I did not release the names of the candidates. In fact the only name I received from the search subcommittee was Dr. Donoyan’s. It seems we may need to agree to disagree on this issue.
Carole September 23, 2011 at 02:13 PM
Alex, Logic can be our friend. It can also be used to make a completely invalid argument when one doesn't understand (or even attempt to) the points being made by the other side.

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