Tiverton Truth Flash

The Problem with the Board of Canvassers Power Grab

It’s been somewhat surprising to see people who clearly consider themselves to be supporters of civil rights and fairness respond as they have to the lawsuits against the town that three of us Town Council members are in the process of dropping or withdrawing from.

All of the details are available, here, so I won’t repeat them, but the upshot is that the Town Solicitor (at the suggestion of one or more members of the Town Council, we believe) led the Board of Canvassers to block ballot questions (or “resolutions”) from the 2018 financial town referendum (FTR) based not on the process of submitting them, but on the content of the questions themselves.  I’ll be generous in this summary (ignoring, for example, that the solicitor actually misstated what some of the questions would have done if they passed) and simply note that Solicitor Anthony DeSisto’s legal analysis was arguable.  Indeed, at the time that the board took its vote, the solicitor hadn’t even provided or (apparently) written his analysis, so he hadn’t made an argument so much as an assertion.

That means that, with no advanced notice of a hearing, no written analysis, and no effort to seek confirming opinions, the Board of Canvassers nullified the electors’ right to put questions on the ballot.  How can anybody, on any side of any political issue, believe that should be the way this works?

Of course, FTR resolutions and ballot questions are kind of abstract, and most electors might not have a practical sense of how they work.  But recent debate about the ethics of council members’ hiring a new solicitor puts a new light on the issue.

It’s become clear that at least some folks in town think it was unethical for us even to run for the council and that we shouldn’t have been permitted to take the seats.  Whether you agree with that or not, think of the Board of Canvassers’ FTR action in that light.

Imagine a town solicitor showing up at the Board of Canvassers meeting at which candidates for local office would be certified.  He tells the board that he thinks it might lead to charter complaints or other legal action against them if they certify three candidates who have lawsuits against the town.  In other words, he says, the candidates are “illegal.”

Obviously, this analysis would be wrong.  Otherwise, we’d be facing those official complaints right now.  But this is exactly what happened with the FTR resolutions.  With little more than an assertion, DeSisto pressured the board to make a decision within the space of their short meeting, even bending the rules of recusal to allow them to vote as he wanted.  There is no reason a solicitor couldn’t do the same thing to a candidate rather than a resolution.

And there is every reason to oppose the Board of Canvassers’ doing either.  It might even be worth a lawsuit.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz, Vice President of the Tiverton Town Council, 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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