Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Councilman Silveira: Op Ed


I received this from Councilman Ed Silveira after my offer to print items that never make it to "Projo" or the "Newport Daily News." Feel free to comment or send me your own article. I did no editing on this.

The following OpEd article was sent to the Newport Daily News May 25th after the meeting from the prior week. For a variety of reasons, the NDN could not print the article. It seems to me it would be interesting to anyone who wishes to understand why I objected to the new Town Open Access policy.
I recommended that the Council, as a minimum, send the policy to the Town Solicitor and RI Attorney General for review. The Council agreed to do that at last night’s meeting.
Ed Silveira

Last Thursday’s Newport Daily News reported on a heated Council discussion which I caused, and for good reason.
Rhode Island General Law requires that almost all information derived by a public body be accessible to all citizens. Exceptions are made for certain personnel information, but in general, if the town has information on a subject, you have a right to that information.
As part of the budgetary process, town counselors are required to review and analyze the town’s budget for the coming year. Our analysis is based on a variety of factors, including historical costs, expected needs, and in some cases on spending by other communities for similar services. When we have a question, we ask the Town Administrator or Town Department Heads for answers. This is simply due-diligence to ensure that we fully understand how the town spends its funds prior to committing new funds.
In that context, I asked the Town Administrator for financial information related to operations of our Senior Center. While I am absolutely committed to supporting our senior citizens and the Senior Center, Middletown spends more on Senior Center staffing and operations than our neighboring communities. So it was appropriate to ask for additional financial data.
What then occurred was nothing short of bizarre. First, I was told I would have to make an appointment with the Senior Center Director to discuss the information since it was not available from the Town Finance Director. Then, that some of the information was not available at all. After two weeks, I still did not have the data I requested.
As anyone who has watched the Town Council in action knows, I am not a favorite of the Town Council President or his supporters. More often than not, Lou DiPalma and I are often the only dissenting votes. I am not uncomfortable in that position since I am convinced that no Council President should have unquestioned support. It happened in the U. S. Congress with disastrous results, and it should not happen in Middletown.
But it is a strange position. I am related to Paul and his sister Arlene Kaull, Senior Center Director, and others in town government by blood and marriage. Perhaps this accounts for some of the rancor.
Since I was getting nowhere following what used to be standard town procedure, I turned to the Newport Daily News to make note of the fact that delaying a request for information is in fact a violation of Rhode Island Open Access laws, which the Daily News and I strongly support. I received most of the information I requested without further delay.
What I did not expect was a memorandum from the Town Administrator detailing a new town policy governing the release of town information. A memorandum which says that it applies to “…how information is transmitted from town employees to council members and the general public…” The policy requires that …”any requests for information about town council members or from town council members…should be copied to me...[and a copy will be sent]…to the Town Council Chair [sic].” Council members Rodrigues and Silvia insist this is not a policy [pixie dust as Mr. Silvia termed it] and as such needs no review or approval. But according to the dictionary, a “policy” is “a program of actions adopted by an individual, group, or government”. So this “program of actions” is a policy, a bad policy.
As a minimum the new policy:
· Was not discussed or voted upon by the Council and was given no public hearing;
· Provides information to the Council President which he has no right to see and distribute to the council or anyone, conferring on him and the Town Administrator powers not given either under state law or town charter;
· Produces a chilling effect on the release of town information, since to do so is to simultaneously release the information to Mr. Rodrigues to be distributed as he sees fit;
· Was not reviewed by the Town Solicitor and/or the State Attorney General for compliance with State Open Access law.
As an example of how the policy would work, if you or a Council member asked for zoning, or other real estate information, the information received would also be sent to Paul, and perhaps further distributed. This is bureaucratic complication which has never been necessary, and is not now.
In sum, if the Town Council President wishes to have a policy governing the release of public information, it should be reviewed for compliance with state open access law, vetted by public hearing and voted up or down by the Town Council. I may be way, way out in the minority, but we can do a much better job of establishing town open access policy, and I am ready to help in that process.
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