One week after the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island 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 Town has agreed to entry of a court order reversing its position. The successful lawsuit, filed in Washington County Superior Court by ACLU volunteer attorney H. Jefferson Melish, was 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.
Under the consent order filed in court today, the Town has acknowledged that Welch was “not given a reasonable opportunity to be heard” at the December meeting, and that the Town “will hereinafter permit ‘Public Comment’ at all future public meetings.”
ACLU attorney Melish said today: “I would like to thank the Town Council for its quick response to this lawsuit to ensure that the Town Charter is followed and the public has the continuing right to participate.” ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “It is unfortunate that a suit like this had to be filed in the first place, but it demonstrates both the need for vigilance by residents to protect their rights and the ability that one person can have to vindicate the civil liberties interests of all.”