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Retroactive Legislation and Hilton Schemes

To review:

  • On March 31, just in time to prevent a Budget Committee vote she might not have liked, Council President Patricia Hilton granted herself authority to amend Tiverton’s Home Rule Charter and change the town’s budget process.
  • During a Town Council meeting on April 6, Councilor Nancy Driggs asked how the council president had that power under the law, and Town Solicitor Michael Marcello explained his legal theory that, during an emergency, every “chief executive” of a city or town gets the same power as the governor, including the ability to suspend state laws within his or her town, which is what the charter essentially is.

The theory was certainly a jaw-dropper, and apparently the state General Assembly believes so, as well.  Working with Hilton and town leadership, Tiverton State Representative John “Jay” Edwards, The Fourth (father of Hilton’s ally on the Town Council, John Edwards, The Fifth), rushed legislation through the General Assembly that includes this subsection:

The chief executive officer of a city, town, or fire district shall have the power to, by executive order, extend, move, or continue any and all budget adoption procedures, including the date of any financial town meeting or financial town referendum, as set forth in any city, town or fire district charter, until such time as the declared state or municipal emergency is lifted or expires.

If local CEOs already have this power, why would the General Assembly have to put it into law?  Proving that this was merely an effort to provide cover for Hilton’s power grab, Edwards made the new power retroactive to March 9.

To be sure, moving the Financial Town Referendum (FTR) may or may not have been necessary or a good idea, but process matters.  Not only did Hilton change the charter with no legal authority, but she hid it from the rest of the council until the deed was done.  The reason, as she explained at the April 6 meeting, was that she had to rush in order to prevent the Budget Committee from voting, because she thought that would be better.

This explanation fails for two reasons.  First, if the council president can suspend the charter for the date of the FTR, surely she could also give the Budget Committee a chance to reconsider its vote; all her move did was to make things more politically comfortable for her allies.  Second, Hilton had plenty of time to bring the idea before the council, which had a special meeting on the Saturday before she signed her executive order.

In fact, messages collected through an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request show that the council president had been discussing the move with other local officials, just not her fellow council members.  The night before she signed the order, Hilton had a discussion about it via text message with Budget Committee member Michael DeCotis.  (DeCotis is the voice on the left.)

(Note that the Jay Edwards whom DeCotis mentions is the Budget Committee chairman, not John Edwards, The Fourth or Fifth.)

This nighttime exchange raises a number of questions.  The Budget Committee did not elect DeCotis as an officer, so why is he planning the committee’s meetings and acting as the liaison between the chairman and the council president while nobody else on the committee knows that anything is going on?  Also, why did he have advance notice that Hilton was going to suspend the Home Rule Charter when no other elected officials did, including the Town Council?  Should the council president be telling the Budget Committee chairman what to do?  Alternately, why bother electing a separate Budget Committee if its members are just going to do what the council president tells them?

However the people involved might answer these questions, Tiverton residents should take the lesson that this is what it looks like when local government officials make all the important decisions in secret.  This is how Hilton sets the stage to leave nobody any choice but to do what she wants, and getting the General Assembly to change the law after the fact doesn’t make it alright.

A second lesson for residents is that they should never believe that the town solicitor, Michael Marcello, is actually “calling balls and strikes” about what the law really is rather than coming up with legal theories to support the desires of his perceived client, Council President Patricia Hilton.  That may be good for business as a hired gun, but it’s not what residents of any community should want in a lawyer who is supposed to represent their interests, not those of any one politician.


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Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. (401) 835-7156.

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