Paul E. Pontarelli
Rhode Island Board Council on Elementary and Secondary Education et al.
County Superior Court PC 15-928 Richard A. Licht Associate
Plaintiff: Michael J. Jacobs, Esq. Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq.
Defendants: Anthony F. Cottone, Esq. Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and
A. Suttell, Chief Justice
plaintiff, Paul E. Pontarelli, appeals from a Superior Court
judgment in favor of the defendants, the Rhode Island Board
Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (the council)
and the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary
Education (RIDE) (collectively, defendants). The plaintiff,
an attorney who is employed as a hearing officer for RIDE,
alleged that the defendants violated the Open Meetings Act
(OMA), as set forth in G.L. 1956 chapter 46 of title 42, by
failing to provide adequate notice of a September 8, 2014,
council meeting and for its failure to provide any notice of
meetings held by the Compensation Review Committee. This case
came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing
the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in
this appeal should not be summarily decided. After
considering the parties' written and oral submissions and
reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been
shown and that this case may be decided without further
briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this
opinion, we reverse in part and affirm in part the judgment
of the Superior Court.
and Procedural History
Compensation Review Committee
pertinent facts in this case are not in dispute. In 2011 or
2012 the council created a Compensation Review Committee
(CRC), which was to convene to review requested and proposed
salary adjustments for RIDE employees. The CRC is composed of
six RIDE employees: the three division chiefs, the chief of
staff, the human resources coordinator, and the deputy
commissioner. David Abbott, the deputy commissioner of RIDE
and a CRC member, serves as the CRC chairperson. Abbott
explained at deposition that membership on the CRC is not by
appointment; instead, serving on the CRC is "just an
additional task for people that are on the leadership
team." He described the CRC as an "informal, ad
hoc working group with a strictly advisory role"
and with no legal status or authority. Abbott also explained
that the CRC does not have regular meetings; rather, it
schedules meetings when a CRC member requests one. He
attested that notice of the CRC meetings is not provided to
the public nor are written minutes kept or taken at CRC
meetings. In 2013, the CRC created a charter to set up
procedures on how it would operate as a committee.
to Abbott, the CRC is a working group formed to provide
"balance" or consistency in compensation for RIDE
positions and to keep the three RIDE division chiefs informed
about compensation requests. Instead of individual division
chiefs making compensation recommendations for their
employees directly to the commissioner, the requests go to
the CRC, which then passes the request on to the
commissioner. Although the CRC initially discussed
compensation for RIDE's 146 public employees and new
hires, it eventually "broaden[ed] the scope of what
[they] were talking about" to also include organization.
The CRC began reviewing the creation of new positions in RIDE
and the work each division or office should oversee. Because
only the commissioner has the actual authority to take
personnel actions, the CRC is "strictly advisory"
and handles all personnel matters outside the scope of the
human resources department.
of the September 8, 2014 Council Meeting
council posted notice of a September 8, 2014, council meeting
on the Rhode Island Secretary of State's website (the
council meeting). As required by G.L. 1956 § 16-60-7(b),
RIDE's table of organization, together with pay ranges,
needed to be approved by the council.Under the "Action
Items" subheading of the agenda notice, item
"7.b." stated: "Approval of RIDE's
Executive Pay Plan and Organizational Chart." Several
spaces to the right of this item description, "Enclosure
7b" was noted. However, the 7b enclosure was not
accessible from the Secretary of State's website. The 7b
enclosure was a memorandum containing a recommendation from
the commissioner of RIDE to the council that the council
"approve the attached Executive Pay Plan for [fiscal
years] 2012, * * * 2013, * * * 2014, * * * 2015 and the
Organizational Chart." Attached to the recommendation
were the proposed retrospective executive pay plans. The
agenda notice for the council meeting was also posted on
RIDE's website, where the 7b enclosure was accessible.
The plaintiff acknowledged that approximately two weeks prior
to the September 8, 2014 meeting, he received a copy of the
council meeting was held on September 8, 2014, at which time
the council considered and approved the four executive pay
plans for fiscal years 2012, ...