Departing judge fires salvo at Warren Town Council

Warren Town Council declines to re-appoint Stephen Sypole as Housing Court judge

By Ted Hayes
Posted 1/22/20

Warren’s first-ever and now former housing court judge is out of a job after the Warren Town Council declined to re-appoint him to a two-year term earlier this month, and suspects politics …

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Departing judge fires salvo at Warren Town Council

Warren Town Council declines to re-appoint Stephen Sypole as Housing Court judge

Posted

Warren’s first-ever and now former housing court judge is out of a job after the Warren Town Council declined to re-appoint him to a two-year term earlier this month, and suspects politics played no small role in his abrupt dismissal.

On Tuesday, Jan. 14, the council voted unanimously to appoint John J. Rego, Stephen Sypole’s former associate justice on the housing court, as judge, as the two-year anniversary of his appointment approached.

Council member John Hanley, who serves as the City of Pawtucket's building official and who first introduced the idea of establishing a court here in Warren three years ago, was the councilor to make a motion that Mr. Rego, not Mr. Sypole, be appointed.

Council members held no public discussion on the merits of either judge, and Mr. Sypole, who had served for two years since shortly after the formation of the court in late 2017, was not present for the vote. He said he had been told that his attendance at the meeting was not required.

Wednesday morning, Mr. Sypole said he immensely enjoyed his tenure and wanted to keep his seat. He was “shocked" to learn afterwards that he had been passed over.

He said he harbors no ill will toward Judge Rego, who he said is a “good guy and a fine attorney” who will serve the town well.

Instead, he believes the council vote was brought about by several members who wanted him to be tougher on certain property owners than he believes his discretion allowed. After speaking to council president Keri Cronin about the matter, he said he feels no better about it:

“This decision was made without very much understanding on the council’s part of how the court works, or what a judge does,” he said. “I’m not looking to have an axe to grind or cause a problem for Judge Rego, but … I walked away with such a bad taste in my mouth.”

That bad taste extends to Ms. Cronin, who said Wednesday that she was sorry to learn that Mr. Sypole would take shots at the town on the way out:

“It’s disappointing, really, that a person who was given an opportunity to serve as a judge for the Town of Warren would make assumptions and call out serving members of the town council,” she said. “I would have expected more; it’s not very judge-like.”

First housing court judge
Mr. Sypole, an attorney with Gidley, Sarli & Marusak, LLP, was appointed following the creation of the Warren’s new housing court in late 2017.

For years, town enforcement actions against offending property owners had little muscle behind them but the court, councilors believed, would give Warren new tools to deal with chronically non-compliant property owners.

Over its first two years, Mr. Sypole said the court lived up to its promise and was successful at compelling action from defendants. In many cases property owners brought before his bench took steps to clean up their homes or land, and others who ignored the court’s orders were held in contempt and fined.

To the extent that he was able to compel action, Mr. Sypole said, he feels he did as good a job as he could have:

“I think we made a lot of progress on receiverships with abandoned properties, and getting the codes enforced. So I think it was a success and I don’t have any regrets; I’m not re-thinking any of the decisions I made.”

While the wheels of justice often move slowly, he said real inroads had been made.

“Because the court is there, things are getting done … (but) the judge’s role is much more limited than I think people realize. The court cannot move any faster than the solicitor or building official are willing to move. I’m not the enforcement person; I am a neutral unbiased person who is there to make decisions based on the law."

What happened?
Mr. Sypole believes some council members were unhappy with the outcomes on several properties that came before the court during his tenure.

While he declined to name specific properties on the record, he said he had several private conversations over his two years with Ms. Cronin and another councilor regarding two downtown property owners who had been brought before the court on numerous occasions and who previously had had compliance issues with the town.

“They (councilors) were both concerned with properties in their neighborhood,” he said, adding that he didn’t feel at the time that either was asking for him to do anything above and beyond what his authority allowed.

“I granted the relief the town asked for, and when it got to the point that my orders were not complied with, they were held in contempt.”

At the time he spoke to those councilors, “I thought (they were just asking) for an update. But after I spoke to (Ms. Cronin last week) I got the impression they wanted to influence me. I wasn’t expecting that.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Cronin said she was disappointed to hear Mr. Sypole’s allegations. She denied trying to sway him toward any decision on any properties.

Like Mr. Sypole, she declined to mention specific property owners by name. However, she said the reason for the vote was simple: It was clear to her that, as a whole, the court had not been as effective as was hoped during his tenure.

“We reviewed his record of the two years and we decided we wanted to go in a different direction,” she said. “We had hoped to see more results coming out of the court.”

As for his allegations, “it’s highly disappointing that a person who would be serving in a judicial capacity would be saying those kinds of things publicly, (particularly) one who has any type of hope or aspiration to have a position like that in the future.”

To Mr. Sypole, that is likely a non-issue, as he said he is not interested in applying for either vacancies created by Judge Rego’s appointment, the housing court associate judge or associate municipal court judgeship.

“I’m pretty sickened by the whole thing.”

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