TIVERTON — The town council took no action Monday on an Oct. 29 citizen’s complaint that campaign buttons spotted on a secretary’s desk at Fort Barton School, violated the town charter prohibition against the use of town resources to influence a voting contest.
The council’s inaction let stand Town Clerk Nancy Mello’s dismissal of the complaint.
“As Town Clerk, I do not take Charter violation complaints lightly,” Ms. Mello wrote Nov. 19 to Donna Cook, the complainant. The letter was also provided to the council.
“I have investigated your complaint as completely as possible. Nevertheless, it is my conclusion that the charges in your complaint are not sufficient to support a Charter violation and your complaint is dismissed,” Ms. Mello wrote.
Ms. Cook had complained that on Oct. 25, when she was in Fort Barton School, she saw three campaign buttons on a school secretary’s desk and that the school department had therefore violated the town charter.
Ms. Mello in her Nov. 19 letter, said she’d visited the school and talked with the secretary (Ms. Sousa), principals, and others. She did not initially see any political buttons on the desk of the secretary, said Ms. Mello, but “after questioning if she had any political material, she [the secretary] found one button under papers on her desk. Once addressed, she immediately threw it in the trash.”
The secretary, said Ms. Mello, “did not know who placed them [the buttons] on her desk.”
Ms. Mello, in her letter to Ms. Cook, said, “I do not feel the one pin (or possibly three as stated in your complaint although I did not find evidence of more than one) found on Ms. Sousa’s desk rises to the level of the intent” required by the charter section in question.
That level of intent under Charter Section 1211(a)-2 calls for a “knowing” violation.
Ms. Mello said that she found that Ms. Sousa “was not aware of the political influence the pins may have represented,” and that “any violation of the charter was both inadvertent and de minimis.”
In the ensuing council discussion on the matter Monday night, council member Jay Lambert said that as he sees it “the town council has no authority to override the town clerk.”
Ms. Cook, who was present, said that Ms. Mello “has the opportunity to present her case, why don’t I have the right to present mine?”
It hasn’t been answered, Ms, Cook said, “how the buttons got there. It’s a locked, secure area.”
Justin Katz told the council from the podium that, “it does seem to me there’s a violation of due process.” Later, Mr. Katz said, “I think this needs further legal clarification,” referring to the charter complaint process.
“There is nothing here to suggest the school department committed any violation,” said Mr. Lambert.
Solicitor Andrew Teitz and Council President Edward Roderick both said that if Ms, Cook or anyone has additional evidence of wrongdoing, they can and should come forward and refile a complaint.
In other action, the council:
• Voted unanimously to instruct Town Administrator James Goncalo to convey to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) the Town Council’s displeasure with the inadequate nature and extent of the department’s notice of the two meetings it has scheduled in Portsmouth and Tiverton regarding the tolls proposed for the Sakonnet River Bridge.
Because of the faulty notice, the council has asked that the Dec. 4 Tiverton hearing be delayed.
The motion passed by the Tiverton Council says that “based on the fact of not being notified in sufficient time,” the council “would like more time to prepare for the public meeting. The Council is expressing dissatisfaction with how the Dec. 4 meeting notification to the business community and the community at large was handled.”
• Approved annual license renewals for 132 licensees (plus two new licenses) in town. The council votes, that followed public hearings for each of the 12 types of licenses voted upon (e.g. tobacco dealers, victualling, entertainment, holiday, street excavators, flea markets petroleum storage, etc.), conditioned the approvals on the licensees’ obligation to meet all legal requirements for license-holders.
No one spoke at any of the hearings in oppostion to any of the licenses. Only one license, that of the Black Goose Cafe, which was renewed for 60 days pending a determination of its compliance with a fencing requirement, was approved for less than one year.
• Voted 6-1 to continue to retain Ursillo, Teitz & Ritch (and Andrew Teitz) as town solicitors, for the time frame from Jan. 1, 2013 to Jan 1, 2015. Also retained was Assistant Town Solicitor Peter D. Ruggeiro, for the same renewal period.
Councilor Joan Chabot voted against each, saying that she believed that the positions should be put out for requests for proposals (RFPs). Ms. Chabot said she had concerns about Mr. Teitz’s “preparedness,” citing one instance at a cemetery commission meeting when Mr. Teitz’s answer to a question proved to be incorrect, following “pushback,” she said, from a commission member.
Councilor Brett Pelletier said he disagreed with Ms. Chabot on the issue of putting the position out for an RFP, saying solicitor services “are different than a lawn care contract.”
Council member Jay Lambert said he was speaking as an attorney, and that in his view Mr. Teitz “is doing a good job for the town. I have confidence in his good judgment and his work product.”