Attorney general decides not to pursue complaint that Redistricting Commission broke the law

·3 min read

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha said Monday that there isn't enough to gain by ruling on whether Rhode Island's Redistricting commission broke the state's open meeting law, a question that raises "novel and complex constitutional issues."

So he is passing on state Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki's complaint against the General Assembly-controlled commission that oversees the redrawing of political boundaries and her call for it to be punished with fines.

State Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki has called for the Redistricting Commission to be punished with fines.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki has called for the Redistricting Commission to be punished with fines.

"The transparency juice isn’t worth the analytical squeeze; indeed, there is no juice to be had here at all," Neronha, a Democrat, said in a news release announcing that his office is letting the matter go.

In explaining his decision, Neronha took shots at both the state GOP and state lawmakers.

If she was going to bring the complaint, he wrote, Cienki should have brought it when the commission started meeting last summer, instead of when it was wrapping up.

And he questioned the General Assembly for making the Redistricting Commission subject to the Open Meetings Act in the law that created it, then arguing that the commission actually wasn't subject to the law.

"This Complaint presents complicated constitutional questions ... that arise as a result of the General Assembly’s decision to pass legislation subjecting the Commission to the [Open Meetings Act], only for the Commission to ignore that provision and argue that the General Assembly’s own legislation was unconstitutional," the letter, written by Special Assistant Attorney General Katherine Connolly Sadeck, said. "This about-face regarding [Open Meetings Act] compliance perplexes this Office and no doubt also perplexes members of the public who should be able to expect their elected officials to adhere to their own promises of transparency."

It is unclear whether Neronha has the constitutional authority to fine the Redistricting Commission if he chose to so.

In 1999, then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse wrote that his office did not have the power to enforce Open Meetings Act requirements against the General Assembly.

Because the GOP complaint arrived after the Redistricting Commission had recommended maps to lawmakers, Neronha said it would be too late to order it to change, rendering any ruling mostly moot.

That doesn't explain why a fine couldn't be effective.

"Although the Commission did not dispute that it failed to follow the [Open Meetings Act], it provided evidence of a host of other measures it took to promote the transparency of its proceedings," Sadeck wrote  in explaining why Neronha didn't fine the commission. "In these circumstances, even assuming the Commission was subject to and violated the OMA, we do not find that the violations were willful or knowing such as to warrant civil fines."

Cienki was not convinced.

"Neronha decided to punt," she wrote in an email response to the decision.  "Although he agrees that the Reapportionment Commission did not follow the Open Meetings Act and he could not comprehend why the General Assembly would flip-flop on making the Reapportionment Commission subject to the Open Meetings Act, he won’t do anything about it."

"We are not surprised that Neronha does not want to take on the General Assembly on this open government issue," she added. "But, it is sad to see a prosecutor criticize anyone who files a complaint in an effort to hold those in power accountable."

Neronha noted that Cienki could still pursue an Open Meetings complaint in Superior Court "should she believe that her arguments will be more convincing there."

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This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI Attorney General Peter Neronha open meetings law Redistricting