On Friday afternoon, a Facebook page known to be allied with members of the Tiverton School Committee reported that the committee had unanimously voted to sue the town on behalf of the elector petition that committee chairman Jerome Larkin and vice chair Sally Black submitted with Council president Joan Chabot and member Randy LeBeau. The Tiverton Taxpayers Association wants Tiverton residents to be aware of the potential cost and disruption to the town that this action may create.
Section 1218 of Tiverton’s Home Rule Charter forbids the use of “Town property, goods, money, grants, or labor to influence the outcome of an election, ballot question, or referendum.” The School Department intervening with legal assistance on behalf of an elector petition that the town’s Board of Canvassers found to be invalid does just that. If any Tiverton elector were to file a Charter complaint against the members of the School Committee under section 1211 (“Enforcement”), the members would face significant penalties. Given the severity of the blatant violation — suing the town to undermine the Charter itself —the Charter would allow a judge to fine each School Committee member $300, require them to reimburse the town for the cost of the school department’s attorney, and remove them all from office. If that were to happen, Tiverton would be without a School Committee until the Town Council appointed an entirely new one, to serve for up to six months, pending a special election.
This is not idle speculation. At its April 11 meeting, the Superintendent warned the School Committee that, because of Charter section 1218, it could not act to support an elector petition. Speaking as the petitioner, before the Board of Canvassers on April 24, Dr. Larkin testified that the petitioners would not “have the resources to bring this to court.” The School Committee subsequently scheduled its Friday afternoon meeting and then, apparently, voted to pay for the legal action that the petitioners could not afford. The committee’s plan is obvious, and it was forewarned of the Charter restrictions.
If the School Committee does not bring an end to its ongoing series of bad decisions (including the poorly done elector petition of its chair and vice chair), we foresee a risk of multiple costly and disruptive legal actions that Tiverton electors may pursue:
- A Charter complaint against the members of the School Committee for voting to, in fact, use town resources to influence the outcome for an elector petition in a referendum.
- A Charter complaint against the members of the School Committee for, in effect, presenting a petition as if it were a private elector.
- An Open Meetings Act complaint against the School Committee for developing an elector petition, including an effective vote on it.
- A Code of Ethics complaint against Dr. Larkin and Mrs. Black for using their public offices to pay for their own legal action.
- A Code of Ethics complaint against the members of the School Committee for voting to provide free legal services to their associates on the committee.
- Additional Charter complaints related to Section 1207 Oath of Office, should any of the Ethics or Open Meetings investigations find a violation of state law.
The need to consider the substantial risks involved with the School Committee’s moving forward are amplified by obvious shortcomings in the opinion presented by their attorney, Stephen Robinson, to Nancy Mello, Town Clerk, and to the Board of Canvassers on April 27, 2017, by Dr. Larkin, then “wearing his hat” as chairman of the School Committee. In that opinion, Mr. Robinson makes apparently inaccurate statements, such as that the elector petition had “only one line item to be changed.”
Mr. Robinson’s assessment of the School Committee’s standing is flawed on its own merits. In brief, as precedence that the Financial Town Referendum (FTR) results might be thrown out, the attorney actually cites a case in which the Supreme Court of Rhode Island did not void election results to remedy an error on the ballots. Nonetheless asserting that the FTR might be “invalidated,” Mr. Robinson claims such an event would “lead to uncertainty.” This assertion, too, is specious, because the school department is guaranteed by state law to receive the same amount of local funding as it received last year, no matter the outcome of the FTR or any lawsuits. Variation of the school department’s revenue is not at all unusual, after the budget has passed, and even if there were some temporary delay in resolution, the school department had a reserve surplus fund of $3.5 million, as of the last audit, from which to draw for stability.
The uncertainty and risk to the school department and the town actually arises if the School Committee continues on its current course of action. Even beyond the immediate issue, the School Committee would be abusing its power in order to exploit provisions in the Charter meant for the protection of taxpayers and the empowerment of taxpayers in defense against town government. By initiating legal action on behalf of an elector petition — which the School Committee discussed and developed in its own open meeting — the committee has made it clear that it sees the elector petition itself as a school department petition. The contempt that this shows for the people of Tiverton and their Charter is also clear in the fact that Dr. Larkin and Mrs. Black failed even to follow the plain rules of the Charter. Five elector petitions have been placed on FTR ballots with no problem. Elected officials should not be using town resources to manipulate the law to make up for the fact that they weren’t able to follow simple rules.