Rhode Island’s Fiefdoms

Although, as I’ve admitted, I’m not particularly familiar with the laws of those distant Rhode Island municipalities, further information about Bill Felkner’s ouster from the Chariho School Committee seems likely to have involved multiple violations:

Bill Felkner of Ashaway, who has served on the School Committee since 2006 and whose term expires in 2010, was elected to the Hopkinton council on Nov. 4 and sworn in on Monday. He said he asked both the state Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission if he could hold both seats and was told — unofficially –that he could hold both as long as he didn’t vote on school issues for the town or town issues for the school committee.
He said he didn’t get the packet of meeting documents that is routinely delivered to members of the School Committee on the Friday before a Tuesday session, he said.
When he arrived at the Chariho Middle School on Tuesday for the 6:30 p.m. closed session that was to precede the 7 p.m. public meeting, he still did not have a packet and there was no name card marking his place at the table.
He sat down anyway.
The meeting opened at 6:30 with the Chariho Regional School District lawyer, Jon M. Anderson, being invited to speak. He delivered the opinion that Felkner was no longer a member of the School Committee.
William Day, a Richmond member who was still chairman of the School Committee until his successor was elected about an hour later, said he was satisfied with that opinion and refused to acknowledge Felkner as anything but a member of the public. He did not allow Felkner to comment and instructed the clerk not to count his vote. …
In a few minutes, they all came out again and took their seats. Day again invited Anderson to speak.
The lawyer told Felkner that he had effectively given up his board seat when he was sworn in as a Hopkinton councilman the day before.
Day polled the committee members on whether Felkner should be removed from the meeting. With Felkner’s vote not counted and Terri Serra abstaining, the vote was 5 to 4, and Day asked Patrolman Kelley to remove Felkner.

Without public announcement, an elected official was simply written out of the committee by the chairman and the committee’s lawyer. No process, no hearing.
Bill’s got much more detail on his blog, with this noteworthy bit:

George Abbott tried to reason with the attorney as well – “you mentioned these conflicts of interest…I realize that the issues are rather different, but I would say we have to remove all the people that have family working at Chariho. I don’t say this to insult anybody, but how does that differ from your opinion that voting on various issues affecting the town would present a conflict of interest …”
[editors note] Andy McQuade just graduated from Chariho 2 years ago and has an aunt working there. Frmr vice chairman Andy Polouski worked at Chariho for 34 years and has a niece working there. Current vice chairman Bob Petit’s cousin is Brian Stanley, the business administrator. Chairperson Holly Eaves is going to school right now to become a teacher. And frmr chairman Bill Day’s wife and son are employees at Chariho and Bill works for Perspectives as a “one on one” — this position requires that he spend his day with a special needs individual at that person’s workplace. Where does that person work? You guessed it, Chariho — shredding paper. So the frmr chairman, who just arbitrarily ruled to have me removed, has a wife and son employed at Chariho and he spends his days there too. And his employer (Perspectives) receives compensation for that time.

So, with no specific legal justification, and with plenty of evidence that the bar for conflict-of-interest violations is high indeed, the committee’s attorney issued, essentially, a ruling that Felkner was in violation. As we’re observing in Tiverton, these municipal lawyers seem often to take their role as justifying the desires of the councils and committees that they serve — or the desires of a handful of members — rather than advising the citizen politicians about what the law actually is.

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Monique
Editor
12 years ago

This incident is fascinating.
We should note in fairness to those committee members that the votes against Bill Felkner were by no means unanimous. Not everyone was thrilled with the chairman’s make-it-up-as-you-go approach.
Apparently, the Chariho School Committee has no bye-laws. My question is, was it a deliberate decision not to pass them so they could make things up as they go along? Or did the majority simply exploit an existing vacuum?
And wasn’t the police officer placed in something of an awkward position? Suppose Felkner hadn’t been so accommodating. What if the chairman told the police officer to arrest Felkner? What would the charge have been? Would the police officer have been liable if a court (or whatever authority) subsequently ruled that Felkner had the right to be present at the meeting? Would the chairman have been liable?
Suppose the reverse. Suppose the police officer refused to arrest Felkner. In view of the open question of Felkner’s status, it’s difficult to believe that the police officer would have been found to have failed in his duty.

John
John
12 years ago

Yet more evidence of how badly the deck is stacked against anybody with the temerity and courage to rock the sinking boat in RI. And another reason to flee the state as fast as possible.

Phil
Phil
12 years ago

Monique
Consider that equally fascinating is the idea of one person holding two different and distinct offices at the same time instead of the much more pedestrian situation that you’ve been associated with of one person being held by two or more different personalities with different names to boot.
Phil

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