That Old Time Political Bullying
Government reform is, ought to be, and may have to be a coherent movement from the municipality to the federal government. Here in Rhode Island, it’s easy to see how a broad set of principles and tactics applied across government tiers have corrupted (and expanded) government and hobbled our society, and mutual support and encouragement across town and state borders will be critical to building a lasting reform movement.
It’s wonderful that national tea party activities have been putting pressure on elected officials at the federal level. It’s also important that, in Rhode Island, the Ocean State Policy Research Institute has formed as a think tank following issues of statewide concern, that the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is taking an increasingly active role in highlighting bad legislation and reviewing candidates for office, and that the Rhode Island Tea Party has directed its activities toward statewide issues as well as national. I’ve maintained, however, that individual activism should begin at the city and town level, where government office is most accessible and where basic political principles have an immediate and local effect on voters’ lives.
We’re certainly finding, in my hometown of Tiverton, RI, that members of the political establishment who operate locally are willing to act as the vanguard in intimidating active residents (of the undesirable sort) to get out of politics.
The same week* Tiverton Citizens for Change President David Nelson officially put his name down as a potential candidate for Town Council, two current members of that body, Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda, filed a defamation lawsuit against him (and an unnamed group of John and Jane Does that may turn out to include me). Their lawyer, Jeffrey Schreck, sent the initial threat of litigation to Mr. Nelson shortly before this year’s contentious financial town meeting, and I’ll have more to say about the suspicious timing of these events, as well as the lack of merits to their claim, in the future, but on first review, I have to express my disappointment at the level of thinking that the resources of our public judiciary must be expended to address.
The substance of the complaint made by Arruda and Durfee — the latter a former director of the state Department of Environmental Management and one-time candidate for governor — hardly has grammatical grounds, let alone legal ones — from a PDF of the summons:
6. The Letter accuses plaintiffs and their allies of submitting false documentation to the State of Rhode Island to support a tax increase. The Letter further states that this accusation of official misconduct by plaintiffs is “not an idle charge” and is “well-documented.” The Letter accuses plaintiffs and others who constitute a majority of the members of the Town Council of making “a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government.”
7. Mr. Nelson’s statements in the Letter accuse plaintiffs of wrongful, criminal conduct, and assert that TCC has written evidence to support his charges.
Here’s the relevant section of the offending letter from Mr. Nelson:
Still worse are the efforts of Ms Durfee, Joanne Arruda and their allies, in deliberate cooperation with the Town Administrator to avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap. They have submitted false documentation to the State to facilitate a tax increase of at least 9%. This is not an idle charge, and it is well documented. Town Administrator Goncalo has stressed that the documents are secret except for him, the Town Treasurer, Budget Committee, and the State. In fact, he promised “to find out who put that form on the Internet”, as if posting public documents is now a matter for witch hunts and suppression of transparency. We have this on tape.
It is astounding that a town official would make a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government based on information that distorts the current status of the town’s budget process. More astonishing is that a majority of the Town Council supports it.
Either Durfee and Arruda have skin so thin that it pains them even to be in proximity of accusations, or they’re twisting the facts in order to present themselves as victims. Their names appear in the letter specifically with reference to efforts to “avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap,” which is irrefutably accurate, given the months of public debate in which they took precisely that position. The “they” who submitted false documents to the state is the whole group of “allies,” including Mr. Goncalo, and it is simply a fact that he did so. Whether Durfee and Arruda’s cooperation with the larger effort extended to direct prior knowledge of Goncalo’s act is immaterial, although it’s reasonable to have suspicions.
Furthermore, as evident in video of the Town Council meeting at which TCC brought this matter to a public head, the town administrator clearly did stress that his act was meant to be secret. And Nelson’s letter explicitly faults “a town official” — that is, Town Administrator James Goncalo — for this particular action within the larger campaign to avoid the letter of the tax cap law.
Lastly, as is also evident in the video, the lack of outrage from the majority of the Town Council implicitly lends their support. If, as their lawsuit implies, Durfee and Arruda believe that Mr. Goncalo’s actions were “criminal conduct” — an accusation that Nelson’s letter does not make — then they are guilty of shirking their responsibility by not censuring their employee when the matter came to their attention.
That local elected officials — who deserve partial blame for the town’s thinning tax base and demand for massive tax increases in the midst of an historic recession — would twist language for political purposes is to be expected. That they would seek to leverage the overburdened court system in an effort to cost a candidate for local office time and money during campaign season is one more example of the methodology by which political insiders have fostered public disengagement from the political process.
* This post initially and incorrectly stated that the suit had been filed the day after Nelson submitted his intention to run for office. The actual filing appears to have occurred the day before his official submission, although he had inquired at the town hall about the process and requirements previously.