The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a lawsuit against the North Kingstown Town Council for violating a Town Charter provision that gives members of the public “a reasonable opportunity to be heard” at Council meetings. The lawsuit, filed in Washington County Superior Court by ACLU volunteer attorney H. Jefferson Melish, is on behalf of North Kingstown resident and past Town Council candidate Richard Welch.
Welch attended a Town Council meeting on December 10, 2015 and attempted to speak at the meeting. However, Town Council President Kerry McKay refused to let him do so. Although the Town Charter gives the public an explicit right to be heard at Council meetings, Town officials took the position that it applies only to regularly scheduled meetings, not “special” Town Council meetings. The December “special” meeting included 13 varied items on the agenda that covered such matters as license renewals, appointments to a job search panel, adoption of budget policies, and a New Year’s Eve policy for liquor establishments.
The lawsuit notes that there “is no distinction made in the Town Charter between regular and special Town meetings to justify the denial of the public’s right to be heard.” The suit asks the court to find that Welch’s right to speak was violated at the December meeting, and to issue an order requiring the Council “to honor the public’s right to attend and have a reasonable opportunity to be heard at all Town Council meetings.”
Plaintiff Welch said today: “The right of the public to be heard by our government is very basic to our form of government and it should not be allowed to be abridged by anyone. This is not the first time that this has happened in North Kingstown, but it must be the last.”
ACLU attorney Melish added: “Public participation and involvement are vital to our democracy. This lawsuit is an attempt to vindicate those crucial public interests.”
A copy of the complaint can be found here.