Accusations fly as Tiverton recall vote nears

Canvassers’ request for recall special counsel sparks angry debate

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 9/18/19

TIVERTON — Recall rancor hit new heights last week at a town council meeting during which conflict of …

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Accusations fly as Tiverton recall vote nears

Canvassers’ request for recall special counsel sparks angry debate

Posted

TIVERTON — Recall rancor hit new heights last week at a town council meeting during which conflict of interest accusations flew, a lawyer called comments “personally insulting,” and an official used a two-word, 11-letter profanity that has almost certainly never been uttered before at a Tiverton town meeting.

After an hour and a half of this, the board voted by the usual 4-3 margin (Coulter, Katz, Cook and Driggs in favor) to put off a decision on the Board of Canvassers’ request that they be provided an independent attorney — someone other than Town Solicitor Giovanni Ciccione — to represent them in matters involving the upcoming recall election against councilors Rob Coulter and Justin Katz.

The eventual motion by councilor Ruth Driggs was based on language suggested by Mr. Ciccione. It calls for:

• The Board of Canvassers to revisit this issue (request for a special counsel) at a “properly noticed meeting,” one Mr. Ciccione said he would attend (he was not present at the Friday evening Canvassers meeting when the request was first approved).

• The Board of Canvassers to provide some concrete answer as to why they need a special counsel.

• A recommendation that all on the council involved in any way in the recall question obtain recusal opinions from the state Ethics Commission because, as Mr. Ciccione put it, “I believe you are all putting yourselves at risk … It’s your choice of course.”

Of the motion, and vote, Ms. Hilton told Mr. Coulter, “This just looks to me like the Board of Canvassers want outside help and you don’t want them to have it.”

Mr. Coulter replied that he see it as a political contest in which “you are trying to weasel out of recusal … You want to muzzle everyone but yourself.”

A question of order

The first argument began immediately and centered on the agenda.

On the agenda, right before the Canvassers’ request for an independent attorney, was an item placed by Mr. Katz seeking procedural clarification.

The council “hasn’t seen something like this (request for a special attorney) that I’m aware of,” and it raises questions — What criteria are used to determine if an independent attorney is needed, what is the procedure, where does the money come from?

“I am pretty confused,” Ms. Hilton said. “As I understand this,” the Canvassers submitted their request for an agenda placeholder. After that, Mr. Katz came in to the town clerk with another agenda item “and directed the town clerk to move that in front of the agenda request by the Board of Canvassers.

“This is not really appropriate,” she said. If their agenda item came in first, it should be heard first — Mr. Katz’s item could “potentially stymie” theirs.

Ms. Hilton said that there is plenty of local precedent, in zoning, planning and other issues, for appointing special counsels.

“It is the purview of the council leadership … to arrange the agenda as we see fit,” Mr. Katz replied. And he said he questions how it was that two of three members of the Board of Canvassers would request that an item be placed on the council agenda even before the full board had voted to do so.

“It was a placeholder,” Ms. Hilton said.

“Let’s put it out there. The recall is against you two“ said councilor Denise deMedeiros to Katz and Coulter. “I don’t blame them (the Canvassers) for being a little uncomfortable. They need to remain impartial” but are represented by a lawyer who was hired by the council majority, two of whom are being recalled. “I don’t blame them.”

Mr. Katz and Mr. Coulter both need to recuse themselves from such discussions, she added.

“And I think you, as the person who took out one of the petitions for recall and collected signatures, and Patricia Hllton, who signed the recall petition, have to recuse,” said councilor Nancy Driggs.

Ms. Hilton made a motion to reverse the order of the two items but it was defeated by a 4-3 vote.

“Is there any wonder why we felt we need an independent solicitor?” Board of Canvassers member DeEtta Moran said.

“I take great umbrage at those comments,” Mr. Ciccione said. I represent this town and this council as a whole and any suggestion that there is bias is personally insulting.”

“But where were you,” Ms. Moran asked, when the Canvassers met last Friday without a town attorney present?

Mr. Ciccione said that when he was told two days earlier that there was potentially a Canvassers meeting scheduled for Friday evening, “I indicated to the clerk that I was not available that night.” He said he replied that he would be available Monday or that he could send a substitute from his firm

“I heard nothing until I got a text later that night that the meeting was held.”

Town Clerk Nancy Mello said later that her recollection was that it was left to Mr. Ciccione to assign a replacement, She said he told her and others that he would either have to rearrange his schedule or see if I can get someone to attend.

“I have no reason to lie about it,” Ms. Mello said. “We assumed that someone would be there.”

Mr. Coulter called attention (and was greeted by audience groans) to a typo in the Canvassers’ agenda item that asked for a special “council” rather than counsel. And “now here we are talking about a lawyer.”

“This is going noplace,” Ms. Hilton said.

Audience member William McLaughlin, who launched the recall petition drive, told Mr. Coulter, “I see a distinct conflict with you and Mr. Katz being involved in this discussion … Why are you guys involved in a conversation that benefits you?”

“Why are deMedeiros and Hilton involved? It benefits them,” Ms. Driggs retorted.

“They’re not being recalled,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “This is a ploy,” a comment followed by moments of shouting and bedlam.

“If you are going to keep talking over one another we will sit here until 2 in the morning,” Mr. Coulter said.

“What is going on here is frightful, everyone take a deep breath, said a woman in the audience … Why can’t they have an independent attorney?”

When discussion finally turned to the Canvassers request, Mr. Ciccione said, “I would strongly recommend that (the request for a special attorney) not be taken up tonight.

“I believe you got an open meeting violation by the Board of Canvassers” when two of the members discussed the matter “prior to their Friday night meeting.”

“Moreover, if this council then exacerbates that violation — takes it from an unknowing to a knowing violation, we’ve made the problem worse.”

Mr. Ciccione should add himself to those with conflicts, Ms. Hilton said. She said that she was having a “nice conversation” with him recently about the Carpionato project when “completely and totally unsolicited on my part, you made a statement to me about your thoughts on who would be in the solicitor’s chair if in fact the council makeup was different after this election. “You did say to me that you didn’t not think that you would be the solicitor” in that case … “You have a financial interest.”

Mr. Katz dismissed that as a “jovial comment by the solicitor - this is conversational stuff.”

Ms. Moran said that she and the rest of the Canvassers were summoned to meet with the state Board of Elections which wanted assurances that Tiverton was giving the recall election the attention it deserves and doing its utmost to keep voters informed.

She said she felt the state was somewhat pleased with how we are approaching the election, “only to come home and find that a member of the Town Council wrote in the Sakonnet Times that people should not vote. We are going through all of this aggravation and all of this money. The whole thing is a —— —-“

“I feel people are going to make everything a scandal when it is not,” Mr. Coulter said. We should be able to have a good faith discussion about policy.”

He disputed that the fact that he stands to lose his $200 stipend if he loses his council seat amounts to a conflict that would require him to recuse.

“If none of you are going to recuse because you are hanging all of this on a $200 a month stipend, then I will disclaim that stipend and remove the financial interest. If you are going down this path to be so cute and lawyerly that a $200 stipend is the difference between your right to speak and mine … Where is the line drawn?”

Ms. Hilton and Ms deMedeiros both said they have checked with the state Ethics Commission and been assured that that collecting signatures or signing a recall petition does not require them to recuse.

No certain timetable was set for revisiting the special attorney question but there was some talk that it might happen at the next council meeting.

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