PORTSMOUTH — Town councils from three municipalities will meet in executive session tonight, Dec. 2, to discuss litigation regarding the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls as well as the Prudence Island ferry service.
The rare tri-town meeting — Portsmouth, Bristol and Tiverton — starts at 7 p.m. at Portsmouth Town Hall, 2200 East Main Road. Members of the public cannot attend the executive session portion of the meeting. It’s not known whether any votes will be taken.
“I really couldn’t comment on that. There may well be votes taken,” said Kevin Gavin, Portsmouth’s town solicitor, adding that the executive session will be in two parts. “The three councils will meet and talk about the Sakonnet Bridge litigation, then the Tiverton council will leave and we’ll continue with Bristol to talk about the ferry.
The councils are meeting in executive session for the toll discussion under the section of Rhode Island law that permits private discussions about pending litigation. All three towns are challenging the legality of tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge in U.S. District Court. The plaintiffs are listed as Michael Lewis, director of the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT); Daniel J. Berman, division administrator of FHWA; Victor Mendez, administrator of the FHWA; Buddy Croft, executive director of the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA); as well as RITBA as a whole.
Earlier this month, the Town of Portsmouth filed a motion to include testimony from two experts — Marcus J. Lemon, lead counsel for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) from 2008 to 2009; and Valerie J. Southern, deputy director of policy to former Gov. Edward D. DiPrete — who say federal law prohibits the implementation of tolls on the bridge.
The crux of their argument is that the law does not allow tolls on any transportation facility once it has been opened to traffic. The Sakonnet Bridge tolls were implemented in August of this year, but the bridge was opened to traffic nearly a year earlier — in September 2012.
Mr. Lewis of RIDOT has argued that the deadline to implement a toll on the bridge is when the contract with the builder — in this case, Cardi Corp. — is substantially complete. RIDOT still has Cardi under contract.
The opinion by the two experts, however, states: “We conclude that the bridge was substantially completed upon the date when it was opened to vehicular traffic on Sept. 20, 2012.”
After the toll discussion, the Portsmouth and Bristol councils will talk about ferry service to and from Prudence Island. Prudence Island Ferry Inc., owned and operated by Bruce Medley, has been the sole ferry carrier since the mid-’80s.
However, the R.I. Public Utilities Commission’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers’ (PUC) is considering an application from A&R Marine — doing business as Prudence & Bay Islands Transport — for a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) to operate a ferry from Prudence Island to Bristol.
As for the councils’ reason for going behind closed doors on the ferry discussion, the agenda lists “pending litigation” and “acquisition and/or disposition of public held property.”
After the Town of Portsmouth filed a motion to intervene in the PUC hearing — meaning it can present testimony for the record — Bristol followed suit. The Town of Bristol purchased the ferry landing in that town earlier this year from Mr. Medley for $800,000. Mr. Medley is leasing the dock from the town for $1 per year, with that contract expiring June 14, 2014.
“We’re both in there and we’re cooperating with each other … we thought it was a good idea to get the councils together,” said Mr. Gavin. (Portsmouth) is obviously concerned about a place for the ferry to land. Bristol owns the facility in Bristol and we own land next to the current facility (on Prudence Island). This is a matter appropriate for executive session.”
After Mr. Medley voiced his intentions to the town earlier this year that he would cease ferry service Dec. 1 — he later withdrew the statement — Portsmouth officials have been concerned about the continuity of ferry service.
“The town wanted to express its concerns about having a viable, long-term ferry service for its citizens,” Mr. Gavin said of Portsmouth’s involvement in the PUC hearing. He noted, however, that the town has not endorsed one ferry carrier over another. “That’s the PUC’s job to do.”
Accusations made by Medley
Still, Mr. Medley said he was alarmed when he saw the meeting agenda for Dec. 2. He also accused Town Administrator John Klimm and Town Planner Gary Crosby of “conspiring” to take control of the ferry landing he owns on Prudence.
“A good source in Town Hall told me that Klimm and Crosby wanted to take the (Prudence) dock by eminent domain,” Mr. Medley said, adding that he got calls from islanders who said there were “engineers all over my property … What are they up to now as far as my property goes? If it’s indeed my property, I don’t trust them.”
Mr. Klimm called Mr. Medley’s accusations groundless. He said the town did hire an engineer to evaluate land on Prudence, but it was on the town-owned property adjacent to the ferry dock. (As one option to continue ferry service, Portsmouth officials have considered the possibility of building a town-owned ferry terminal on the island.)
“They weren’t on his property. We aren’t interested in his property, period. Why would we when we have a beautiful parcel adjacent to his?” said Mr. Klimm. “We’ve had no conversations about buying his land or leasing his land.”
Added Mr. Crosby: “John Klimm and I haven’t even spoken about (the ferry issue) since the PUC hearing. We’re not conspiring in any way.”
Mr. Medley also accused Portsmouth officials of wanting to take control of the Bristol dock, which Mr. Klimm also denied.
“What Bristol does with its dock is their business,” said Mr. Klimm adding that Mr. Medley has never brought his allegations directly to Portsmouth officials. “I have an open-door policy.”
Portsmouth’s concern over the ferry service has always been the same, Mr. Klimm said — to make sure Prudence residents have a consistent and reliable means of getting to and from the island.