RIAC council briefing raises question on open meetings law
While City Council members want to learn how the Rhode Island Airport Corporation proposes to offset the loss of about seven acres of Buckeye Brook wetlands, which will be altered when safety improvements are made to the shorter of Green Airport’s two runways, others are questioning whether they should meet behind closed doors to address the question.
“People want to know what’s going on,” Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla said yesterday when asked about a meeting planned for this afternoon at the airport. Interim RIAC CEO Peter Frazier has invited all nine council members to attend an informational meeting about the wetlands.
Improvements to Runway 16-34 involve an extension of the area to meet Federal Aviation Administration regulations regarding safety. Some wetlands at the Buckeye Brook end of the runway will be lost.
Those areas can be made up with the extension of wetlands elsewhere, but for all of this to happen RIAC needs a wetlands permit, and that requires City Council approval. The council has 45 days to respond to a petition to alter wetlands, but so far RIAC hasn’t actually filed a formal application.
Nonetheless, RIAC’s efforts to bring council members up to speed are causing a stir between some of RIAC’s most ardent critics. In a letter sent to council members and the Beacon, Richard Langseth calls the meeting “secret” and speculates it has something to do with acquiring land from Leviton Manufacturing on Jefferson Boulevard to offset the lost Buckeye Brook wetlands. Since all nine council members have been invited to attend, Langseth says the meeting is in violation of the state Open Meetings Law.
“The Rhode Island Open Meetings Law is very clear. Unless the city is going to buy or sell Buckeye Brook property, or sue or be sued by the airport, there is no way it can keep any secrets that the airport management whispers at this secret presentation,” Langseth writes.
Frazier, who is an attorney, disagrees.
“This is a courtesy meeting from one agency to another,” Frazier said yesterday. “We want to provide information. They [the council] are not going to deliberate. This is not a hearing,” He said he is familiar with the law and, as a precaution, even checked with the Attorney General.
“This is absolutely consistent with the letter of the law,” he said.
Frazier said wetland mitigation plans have been shared with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Management.
“It’s a briefing,” he said, “We’ve done this kind of thing before with the City Council. To deprive the council [of the information] doesn’t sound like good government to me.”
Merolla, who is also an attorney, said the Council’s attorney, John Harrington, has reviewed the matter and issued the opinion that all nine members can attend the informational session without violating the law, if they do not ask questions.
Merolla wondered how productive such a session would be. He asks whether that might project the wrong impression.
“This may be good legal advice,” he said, “but is it good political advice?”
Merolla sees advantages to a closed meeting as it enables parties to have “frank discussions.”
Frazier said the wetlands mitigation being proposed is entirely on airport property and does not include the Leviton property. He said an expert in wetlands mitigation would make a presentation at today’s meeting.
As for the runway safety area project, he said it is on schedule and that the first visible sign of that work would be the demolition of Hangar 1 at the west end of the runway. The wetlands are at the east end of the runway. Construction is slated to begin this summer.
Frazier also said RIAC is also seeking bids for the construction of a glycol recovery system RIAC has committed to build to mitigate the runoff of the deicing fluid into the Buckeye Brook watershed.
Frazier expects to meet with the Buckeye Brook Coalition, a citizens group to restore the brook and its spring runs of herring, and outline RIAC’s wetlands proposal for them.