Portsmouth Open Space Committee accused of abuse

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Logo_PortsmouthPORTSMOUTH — The head of a citizens’ watchdog group has accused a town committee of violating state open meetings laws and holding personal performance hearings for political retribution.

Larry Fitzmorris, president of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC), made his allegations against the Portsmouth Open Space Committee (POSC) in a Nov. 5 letter to the Town Council.

Mr. Fitzmorris plans to ask the Town Council at its Tuesday, Nov. 12 meeting to dissolve the open space committee and assume its duties. He will also request that the council modify all town committee bylaws to prohibit personal performance actions against their respective members. The council meets at Town Hall at 7 p.m.

“The POSC has become dysfunctional and any correction action initiative by the council is unlikely to be effective,” Mr. Fitzmorris stated in his letter. “The committee has reached the point that it is using personal performance hearings for political retribution, to suppress minority views and to drive those individuals from the POSC.”

Mr. Fitzmorris’ allegations stem from “three recent actions against” committee member Debra Cardoza, according to the letter:

• “The first action was an appeal by the committee chair and secretary to the council asking for the removal of Ms. Cardoza in April 2012. This action was not approved by the POSC itself. The council representatives involved declined to take formal action.”

• “The second action was the May 22, 2013 POSC meeting in which the committee conducted an illegal personal performance hearing against Ms. Cardoza. That hearing resulted in a complaint to the attorney general that produced the ruling in Cardoza v. Portsmouth Open Space Committee of Jan. 24, 2013.”

• “The third action was the personal performance hearing conducted by the POSC on Oct. 21, 2013. In that hearing POSC voted 7-3 to ask for Ms. Cardoza’s resignation. Their decision was that Mr. Cardoza submitted a request for open space action to the council without an approving committee vote.”

Mr. Fitzmorris argues that the POSC should be dissolved in part because the Oct. 21 personal performance hearing was called to retaliate against Ms. Cardoza for her complaint to the attorney general.

“In that decision the (attorney general) ruled against the POSC in all six specifications contained in Ms. Cardoza’s complaint and ruled that the committee violated her rights under the Open Meetings Act,” Mr. Fitzmorris stated in his letter. “The PCC believes that this is a record for the number of violations of the Open Meetings Act by a governmental body in Rhode Island.”

Mr. Fitzmorris continues by saying the PCC questions the POSC’s authority to conduct personal performance hearings. “No authority is contained in the committee’s bylaws, as approved Aug. 22, 2011,” he stated, adding that the “basic lack of fairness of these hearings shocks the conscience.”

In his letter, Mr. Fitzmorris said the POSC initially denied Ms. Cardoza the opportunity to have legal representation at the Oct. 21 hearing, while using the town solicitor to assist in the committee’s case.

“The committee also denied Ms Cardoza and her attorney a full opportunity to make a defense by interrupting their remarks and using abusive language such as ‘cut this cancer out’ before the decision was reached,” Mr. Fitzmorris stated in the letter.

He also alleged that POSC, as a matter of formal policy, denies citizens the opportunity to speak at all meetings — a restriction that also applies to any Town Council members who may be in attendance.

“The committee is expending an average of $322,000 a year in tax payments, yet is completely unwilling to answer the (citizens’) questions,” Mr. Fitzmorris stated.

Chairwoman responds

Reached Friday morning, Karen Menezes, chairwoman of the POSC, declined to comment on most of the allegations made in Mr. Fitzmorris’ letter. Ms. Menezes said she will respond to the letter before the Town Council Tuesday night.

“No committee wants to give a personal performance review. It’s a very painful procedure,” she said.

Regarding the violations of the Open Meetings Act, Ms. Menezes invited members of the public to visit the attorney general’s website to review the ruling.

“We made a mistake. I didn’t realize that what we were doing was wrong,” she said, noting that the attorney general’s office didn’t impose any fines or sanctions on the committee.

As to Mr. Fitzmorris’ allegation that the POSC doesn’t allow members of the public to speak at its meetings: “We will address it at the Town Council meeting,” she said.

Ms. Cardoza could not be reached immediately for comment.

According to the town’s website, the Open Space Committee typically meets at 6 p.m. on the third Monday of each month — except for Monday holidays — in the second-floor conference room at Town Hall.

Review of town committees

In a separate agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting, Council member David Gleason will request that a town-sponsored “review class” be held for all town committees.

Mr. Gleason, in a Nov. 4 letter to the council, said the review could include voting procedures and Roberts Rules of Order; recording, correcting and posting of meeting minutes to the Town Council; establishment of bylaws for new committees; proper posting of agenda items; agenda topics possible open for discussion but not eligible to vote on; and accepting public comments at meetings.

“I’m sure that there are other points worth discussing, but the idea is to make sure that town-related business is conducted legally and properly in a manne set forth by the council to the best of our ability,” Mr. Gleason stated in his letter.

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