Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Common Cause: Halt Assembly Votes until Website is Fixed?

By Katherine Gregg

PROVIDENCE, RI -- With the General Assembly's Web site inoperable for the third day, a citizens advocacy group is strongly urging House leaders to cancel House votes and committee hearings today on bills the public cannot access.

Senate leaders have already canceled most votes and all hearings; House leaders have not.

Among the House bills up for a floor vote today: the proposed House rules for 2009-10, already the target of critics within the House.

"This is ridiculous,'' said John Marion, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of Common Cause, "and the reason it is particularly problematic is because this is the first year when bills aren't being made available (on paper) to the public in the public information office in the basement.''

Marion did some homework, and from a previously cached copy of the current House rules found this: "The Chair of every committee shall post, in print and electronically, at least forty-eight (48) hours prior to any committee meeting, a list by number and title of the bills and resolutions to be heard at that meeting. Such postings shall be made electronically and on the Legislative Data Bulletin Board. The electronic posting shall be considered the official date of the posting.

"In the event that the electronic posting system is inoperable then the official posting shall be the printed posting on the Legislative Data Bulletin Board."

"As you can read, they do have a contingency in the rules,'' he said. "But they're silent on whether the bills themselves should be made available. They only say they shall be made available in print or electronically to members of the committee and principal sponsors. So, the House is obeying their rules, but again, I think they're skirting the spirit of holding a public hearing on a piece of legislation when the legislation itself is not available.''

In other words, "it is improper to hold a hearing on a bill when no one can access the bill,'' he said.

As the 4 p.m. start of the House session drew near, there was no official response from the House leadership to Marion's concerns.

Meanwhile, the Senate served notice at 3:30 p.m. that it would proceed with a vote to confirm Craig Stenning as director of the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals. Stenning is currently the acting director.

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