Superior Court Judge Changes the Charter, Guts the FTR

Ever since the day the people of Tiverton overwhelmingly voted to add the financial town referendum (FTR) to our home rule charter, local insiders have been striving to change or stop it.  Christopher Cotta, who was then the Budget Committee chairman, went so far as to attend a General Assembly committee hearing to beg legislators not to allow voters to have their way.  (Legislators’ passing of home rule charter amendments is typically done simply as a matter of course.)

In 2018, the town council blew off all suggested charter changes by the elected Charter Review Commission and substituted their own desires on the ballot, including changes giving them a stronger hand in the FTR.  Voters rejected every change.

But with Cotta as town administrator and Denise deMedeiros sitting as the Town Council president, Tiverton’s town solicitor, Michael Marcello (who is a former state representative and a member of the town council in his hometown of Scituate), found a way to change the charter without requiring a vote of the people.

With Marcello running legal interference, Town Clerk Joan Chabot changed the deadline to submit elector budget petitions with almost no notice and blocked two residents’ attempts.  Then Marcello surprised three other residents with no warning at a Board of Canvassers meeting that should have been a formality to certify signatures on their petitions and, based on a memo that nobody but the board had seen, persuaded the canvassers to block their two budget petitions.

As a result, the town council’s preferred budget was the only option on the ballot.

School committee members Diane Farnworth and Deborah Pallasch, who had submitted a budget in their capacity as electors, sought to have Newport Superior Court Judge Brian Van Couyghen force the town to put their budget on the ballot.  I did the same on behalf of the petition that I submitted.

The three of us have been opponents on nearly every substantive debate in town over the past fifteen years, but we were united in disbelief that the town would change the rules of the FTR in the face of what we knew to be the clear intent of the residents who wrote the FTR section and what has been the practice ever since.  (Both Nancy Driggs, whose budget proposal Chabot blocked, and Pallasch served on the Charter Changes Advisory Committee that researched, debated, and created the FTR process.)

Unfortunately, as we have seen in prior years, the judge took the solicitor’s argument in its entirety — even going further to change the charter — and gutted the FTR.  If his ruling stands:

  • The Board of Canvassers will be permitted to reject elector petitions for any reason whatsoever.
  • Elector budgets will be forbidden from modifying any revenue estimates at all.
  • Elector budgets will be forbidden from specifying the use of the surplus from the general fund.

Nancy Driggs and Joel Bishop, whose petition Chabot also blocked, are already pursuing their lawsuit further, and I intend to do the same.  The particulars of the budget aside, Tiverton residents cannot tolerate a system in which the rules can change from year to year and, even worse, town officials can change the rules with no notice whatsoever.

Being on the same side on such a contentious fight as Diane Farnworth and Deborah Pallasch has certainly led me to reconsider how easy it is to fall into an us-versus-them mentality based in large part on the sheer competition of local politics.  Perhaps the silver lining of this terrible outcome can be a reset.

At the end of the day, what is most offensive about the action of Cotta, deMedeiros, and Marcello is the utter disrespect for the people of this community.  We can disagree about the best way to move forward, but if we can agree that rules and votes should be respected, we can resolve disagreements without losing sight of the fact that we’re part of a community.

The first step is to ensure that we actually still have a charter that can’t be swiped away.

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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