Daily Tiverton Truth Flash

Edwards Ethics Violation Shows the Solicitor Isn’t Always Right and Shouldn’t Get New Power from Charter Changes

Multiple ideas floating around town come together nicely in the case of Town Council member John Edwards’s violation of the Code of Ethics written in state law for elected officials:

  • Edwards and others repeatedly reference the number of “lawsuits” that the good-government group, the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, has filed.  (They lump together every kind of complaint or legal filing as a “lawsuit” and never provide an actual count.)
  • Multiple folks (with Edwards at the lead) seem to believe that voters and taxpayers just have to take the word of “experts” about the law and the town’s budget.
  • Multiple charter changes on the ballot November 6 (notably Question 6, rewriting the charter complaint process, and Question 11, gutting the financial town referendum [FTR]) give the Town Solicitor profound new powers to dismiss residents’ ability to hold government accountable and to control their taxes.

The basic facts are these:  On January 12, 2017, Edwards acted and voted to maintain funding for the Newport County Chamber of Commerce in the Tiverton budget.  As a member of the chamber’s board, Edwards should not have participated in the debate or voted on the outcome, according to the Code of Ethics.

Responding to a complaint filed by this writer, the Ethics Commission found that, yes, Edwards was “barred [from] participation in the Tiverton Town Council’s January 2017 discussions regarding Tiverton’s membership in the Newport County Chamber of Commerce.”  However, because he “reasonably relied upon the advice of the Town Solicitor that his participation was permitted,” his violation of the code was not “knowing and willful.”

So, if it weren’t for this complaint (which some insist on calling a “lawsuit”), Edwards would be free to continue violating the Code of Ethics.  The more important lesson is that Town Solicitor Anthony DeSisto — whose job includes teaching town officials about the Code of Ethics — was apparently unfamiliar with an important and straightforward rule within that code.  Either that or he was willing to take a hit to his own credibility in order to protect one of the elected officials who gets to vote on hiring and firing him.

Voters should not find either possibility encouraging as they figure out how to vote on the ballot questions.

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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. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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