Solicitor reaffirms opinion against four-year terms in East Providence

City Solicitor Tim Chapman reaffirmed an earlier opinion leaving terms for elected officials in East Providence at two years. City Solicitor Tim Chapman reaffirmed an earlier opinion leaving terms for elected officials in East Providence at two years.

EAST PROVIDENCE — Despite statements to the contrary made by Ward 4 Councilor Christine Rossi, Solicitor Timothy Chapman maintains that the City Councilor and School Committee will continue to serve two-year terms until the November 2012 Charter amendment vote of the East Providence electorate in support of four-year terms is ratified by the General Assembly.

Mrs. Rossi, who insisted the city’s Home Rule Charter superseded state authority on the issue, first asked the solicitor for an opinion on the matter back in May, which he gave questioning the legal validity of the measure.

At the July 15 City Council meeting, Mrs. Rossi broached the topic again during the privilege section of the gathering. It what then she said members of the East Providence House of Representatives delegation as well as state officials had told her the four-year terms question was the purview of city, not Smith Hill.

Mrs. Rossi said State Rep. Helio Melo had told her the vote did not need to be ratified by the General Assembly. She added that statement was backed by Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, as well as Robert Kando, the executive director of the State Board of Elections.

“(Mr. Mollis) flatly refused to stick the state in the middle of this because it’s purely a city problem,” Mrs. Rossi said. “I asked him if he could put that in writing and he said ‘Absolutely not. This has nothing to do with the state.’”

Mr. Kando, likewise according to Mrs. Rossi, reportedly refused to put his statement in writing as well.

Mrs. Rossi, who said she voted against the charter change, said she also spoke with Rep. Gregg Amore, who asked the House legal team to take a look at the issue. According to Mr. Amore, the General Assembly merely had to approve the ballot question, after which the issue was left up to the voters. However, he stated that the final determination should be based on the solicitor’s interpretation of the City Charter, according to the Mr. Mollis’ office.

“The Secretary of State’s office would not issue a written decision but said they deferred to the solicitor’s interpretation of the Charter,” Mr. Amore said in a follow-up phone interview.

Mr. Chapman’s legal opinion states that, according to the Rhode Island Constitution (Section 7, Article 23), the General Assembly retains the right to validate all laws pertaining to elections, and thus the ballot question cannot take full effect until it passes both chambers at the State House.

Mr. Chapman reaffirmed his position Tuesday. He noted both the State House of Representatives and Senate took up the matter during the 2013 session, though neither side voted on the other’s version of the bill, leaving its veracity up in the air.

“There is no exception for the Home Rule Charter,” he said. “It states unequivocally in all the case laws that it is a reserve power of the General Assembly.”

No action was taken on the subject by the Council Tuesday, Mayor and Council President Jim Briden saying the only written opinion about it is the one produced by Mr. Chapman and is what should be followed.

City Canvassing Board Chairman Tom Riley, who noted he is often a critic of Mr. Chapman’s, said he whole-heartedly backed the solicitor’s opinion in this case.

“As far as we’re concerned it’s still two-year terms,” Mr. Riley said. “Without ratification by the General Assembly there are no four-year terms. It could expose the Canvassing Board to liability, and I will not open the board to a suit period, end of conversation.”

Mr. Riley continued, telling the Council he has been approached by residents on numerous occasions who tell him the four-year term ballot initiative presented to them in 2012 “isn’t what they thought it was.” He added, the proposal was “extremely flawed.”

“There is no recall provision. This was not was properly vetted by a Charter Commission,” Mr. Riley added. “It was just thrown up against the wall.”

Mr. Riley, who also noted four-year terms would not save the city any money through fewer elections as some proponents had stated during the run-up to the November 2012 election, praised Mr. Chapman’s effort.

“This is a very thorough opinion and I think it is a good piece of work,” Mr. Riley added. “As far as (the Canvassing Board) is concerned, we’re sticking with two-year terms unless something comes through the General Assembly.”

— With contributions from Joseph D’Amico, Post Intern

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