Dozens of Barrington’s public officials were told on Wednesday evening, Nov. 28, that most people “see you as the government.”
“You will be their only contact ever in most cases,” said Andrew Teitz, an assistant solicitor for Barrington. He spoke at the Local Government Workshop on open meetings, ethics and public records in the Barrington library auditorium.
Elected and appointed officials, therefore, must follow a set of rules that are separate than those for the public.
“You have the legal authority to protect the public interest,” Teitz said in a rambling presentation and question-and-answer session titled “Your Role as a Public Official.”
“A lot of requirements overlap,” he said. “And you must meet all of them.”
Ethical behavior, for instance, is mandated by the Rhode Island Constitution and the Code of Ethics enforced by the RI Ethics Commission, he said. But Barrington itself has its own code of ethics, adopted about 10 years ago.
The state is concerned primarily about financial conflicts of interest, Teitz said. Barrington’s code is concerned with "financial and other conflicts of interest" as well.
“A violation in Barrington can cost you a job or removal from office,” he said.
Public officials must avoid conflicts of interest at all costs, he said. Even the appearance of impropriety can crush credibility.
“When there is an appearance of a conflict,” he said, members of all boards and commissions must recuse themselves from participation.
“You walk away and do not take part in the process,” Teitz said. “Going to the back of the room is the least you should do. Leaving the room is my suggestion.”
Abstaining from voting is not recusal, he said. It is effectively a negative vote.
“If it’s not positive,” Teitz said, “it is negative.”
Regarding the state’s Access to Public Records law, he said, “Your job is to get that request right away to the Town Manager. That’s your big responsibility under the public records act.”
The town has 10 days to respond to a request for a public record, he said. Any delay can pose problems in responding to that request.
Regarding free speech, Teitz said, “People have the right to free speech and freedom of expression” that can be hurtful, distressing and disturbing to other people, and that is part of people's right of free speech. The balancing comes in applying reasonable regulation of the time, place and manner of the speech."
“There is also big difference between a public hearing and a public meeting,” he said. “At a public meeting, people show up and hear and see what you did. They don’t necessarily have the right to speak at a meeting.”
But once you allow one person to speak, he said in response to a question, you must give everyone the same opportunity.
A public hearing, on the other hand, does give people the right to speak, Teitz said.
Public officials always face the dilemma of how to balance competing interests and elements, he said. How do you allow free speech, provide fairness and still end the meeting before midnight?
“Fairness and impartiality is the minimum standard for public bodies,” he said.
But in the end, officials on the Town Council and School Committee and every other board and commission must do a balancing act to comply with the laws, provide due process, and perform the public’s business in public, Teitz said.
The 60-70 officials who attended the workshop were also given a quick primer on the changes to the state's public records act made by the legislature in the last session. It was led by Michael Field, an assistant attorney general who is considered an authority on the public records and open meeting laws in Rhode Island.
The workshop was organized by Town Councilor Cynthia Coyne, who launched this effort to educate all public officials in March of 2011. Outgoing Town Councilor Jeff Brenner served as the moderator. The public officials also were served refreshments before and during a break in the 2-1/2 hour session in the library gallery.