ACLU calls on town, city councils and school committees to step up remote public access

New analysis shows ‘generally positive’ municipal practices, except for remote participation

By: - May 31, 2023 5:02 pm

A majority of municipal public bodies in Rhode Island continue to livestream their meetings, record and archive them, and provide agenda documents online, a new report from ACLU Rhode Island finds.

One silver lining of the pandemic: It forced government bodies to let people watch, learn about, and participate in, public meetings remotely.

And even though the state’s requirements around remote public access have ended, a majority of Rhode Island’s city and town councils and school committees continue to do it anyway, according to a report published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. 

For the groups that don’t: time to step up.

“As a result of the open meetings lessons spurred by the pandemic, more parents were able to monitor school board meetings without having to find child care; elderly residents could watch evening town council meetings without having to drive in the dark; and harried individuals with two jobs often had an opportunity to watch an important governmental meeting on their own schedule,” the report stated. 

“Major public bodies that have not continued with those opportunities for remote public involvement should do so.”

The 20-page report reflects the agency’s review of how easily people can remotely access meetings and information about each of the state’s 39 city and town councils and 34 school committees using March and April online meeting information. Each public body was considered using four criteria: remote live-streaming of meetings, remote participation in meetings, online access to archived meeting videos, and availability of online documents detailing specific agenda items.

Twelve city and town councils met all four benchmarks, along with one school committee.

Twelve city or town councils and one school committee met all four criteria the ACLU used to measure remote access to public meetings. (Courtesy American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island).

Statewide, the results were “generally positive,” in three of the four criteria: the exception being public remote participation, the ACLU said.

Indeed, 32 of 39 city and town councils offer some form of live streaming to watch meetings remotely, as do 25 of 35 school committees. An even greater percentage, 35 of 39 municipal councils and 27 of 34 school committees, post links to old meeting videos for people to watch.

Also “encouraging,” according to the ACLU, are the 31 city and town councils that include links in their online meeting agendas to more detailed documents explaining the items up for consideration or vote. However, only half of school committees offered the same online details in their agendas.

More troubling is the lack of remote public participation: available through only one school committee (Barrington) and 12 city or town councils. And technological challenges are no excuse, according to Steven Brown.

“Every city and town council and school committee should at least make the effort to determine if it is feasible, and the state should consider providing financial and technical assistance — as it did during the pandemic — to help them with this goal,” Brown said in a statement.

Size also doesn’t matter, the report found. Town councils for two of the smallest municipalities – New Shoreham and Little Compton, with populations of 1,000 and 3,500 respectively — offer live streaming, recorded meeting access and online documents. By comparison, the town council in Burrillville, which has over 16,000 residents, posts archived videos online but does not let people livestream or participate in remote meetings, nor does it post online agenda packets, the report stated.

The ACLU in its report called on every city and town council to meet all four access criteria, framing its argument around democratic government foundations and state law.

“Access to the democratic process should no longer hinge on a person’s physical mobility or their ability to afford a car, get time off work, or find a child care provider,” the report stated. 

Access to the democratic process should no longer hinge on a person’s physical mobility or their ability to afford a car, get time off work, or find a child care provider.

– ACLU Rhode Island report 'Remote Access to Public Meetings Post-Covid'

“If municipal councils and school committees positively address the access issues analyzed in this report, they will be taking important steps in further promoting the Open Meetings Act’s goal of having ‘public business be performed in an open and public manner.’”

The report also referenced legislation introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu, a Westerly Democrat, that would require remote streaming of and participation in meetings for city and town councils, school committees, zoning and planning boards as well as quasi-public state agencies. Gu’s bill remained in the Senate Judiciary Committee as of Wednesday. Similar (though not identical) legislation from Rep. Justine Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat, was approved by the House of Representatives on May 25. 

Jordan Day, associate director at the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, issued an emailed statement in response to the report.

“Over the last three years, municipal governments have found meaningful ways to continue engaging the public during a pandemic and beyond. They have voluntarily live streamed meetings and have accommodated remote public testimony, often with limited resources. We have offered our feedback and have had discussions with the bill sponsors on pending legislation to amend the Open Meetings Act to continue expanding access and participation in local decision making.”


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.