PORTSMOUTH — The Town Council violated the state Open Meetings Act (OMA) when it met in October 2013 to discuss the fate of the former Elmhurst School chapel, the Rhode Island attorney general’s office has ruled.
Local resident and Realtor John Vitkevich filed the OMA complaint with the attorney general in December, alleging that the council violated the law when an agenda item for the Oct. 29, 2013 meeting, “Request for Additional Funding for the Mothballing of the Former Elmhurst School Chapel,” failed to adequately specify the nature of the business to be discussed.
Specifically, he accused the council of allowing “a vote to develop a phasing plan for demolition of the Elmhurst Chapel which was not on the agenda,” Special Assistant Attorney General Malena Lopez Mora wrote in summarizing the case in an April 11 letter to Mr. Vitkevich.
In his response to the complaint, Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin claimed the Oct. 29 agenda item was not misleading to the public. Mr. Gavin said the language was “sufficient to fairly inform the public of the nature of the business to be discussed or acted upon by the Town Council,” according to the ruling.
The attorney general’s office, however, interpreted things otherwise. “… the Oct. 29, 2013 minutes evidence that, despite the ‘mothballing’ agenda, the Town Council voted in favor of developing a phasing plan for demolition and cost options for a fee not to exceed $10,000,” the ruling states. “Therefore, the Town Council violated the OMA.”
Despite the ruling, the attorney general’s opined there were no facts presented to suggest that the Town Council “willfully or knowingly violated the OMA.” Therefore, the office decided against issuing any injunctive relief or declaring the council vote null and void.
The town also will not face any civil fines, according to the ruling. Mr. Vitkevich, however, has the option of pursuing the complaint in Superior Court within 90 days from the date of the ruling.
Complainant’s proposal for chapel
Mr. Vitkevich has accused the council of rushing to tear down the chapel without considering possible uses for the building.
The council had asked for requests for expressions of interest (RFEIs) on the rehabilitation, operation and management of the chapel. Mr. Vitkevich pointed out that the RFEIs weren’t due until Nov. 29, 2013 — four days after the council vote to demolish the chapel and everything else north of the music room.
Another local Realtor, Allen Shers, had proposed turning the chapel into a community civic center. He, too, complained about what he perceived as the council’s rush to tear the chapel down.
Contacted Wednesday, Town Council Vice President John Blaess declined to comment on the attorney general’s ruling. Council President James Seveney and Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin could not be reached before deadline.