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Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Conflicting laws leave contested Chariho School Committee vacancy up to RI Supreme Court

Richmond Town Council chooses to ignore Town's Charter

By Steve Ahlquist, UpRiseRI

Illegitimate Chariho appointee Clay Johnson takes the "oath"
from right-wingnut Sen. Elaine Morgan
The Chariho School Committee is made up of 12 members, four each from the towns of Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton, hence the name CHA RI HO. Every two years voters in each town elect two members to the committee. This year, the Town of Richmond elected Republicans Patricia Pouliot and Kathryn Colasante. In a very close third place was Democrat Jennifer Purcell, but third place did not get her a seat on the School Committee. Committeemember Colasante ran on the #ParentUnitedRI slate. 

#ParentsUnitedRI is a grievance-based hate group that stands against the transgender community, opposes the teaching of racism history, and fought hard against COVID-19 precautions and medical advice throughout the pandemic. Another member of the #ParentsUnitedRI slate elected to the Chariho School Committee in the last election was Polly Hopkins, representing Hopkinton.

In January it was learned that Chariho School Committee Vice President Gary Liguori was stepping down. Ligouri was one of the four members representing Richmond. According to the law, as commonly understood, the Richmond Town Council had the task of elevating the next highest vote getter to the School Committee. That person would be Democrat Jennifer Purcell.

Politically speaking, Jennifer Purcell taking a position on the Chariho School Committee changes little. It is estimated that the School Committee, prior to Ligouri’s announcement, was made up of seven “liberals” and five “conservatives.” Purcell filling Ligouri’s seat would keep the status quo, but members of Richmond’s Town Council saw an opportunity to change that balance.

There are two laws that govern the appointment of members to vacated Richmond seats on the Chariho School Committee: the State of Rhode Island’s Chariho Act, which is the enabling legislation that led to the creation of the Chariho School District, and the Richmond Home Rule Charter.

According to Article 2, Section 5(B) of the Richmond Home Rule Charter, “If a Town Council seat or a school committee seat becomes vacant, the Town Council shall appoint the unelected candidate who received the greatest number of votes for that office in the most recent general or special election.”

The state’s Chariho Act says, “In the event of any vacancy by death, resignation or incapacity to serve of any term of any member of said regional school district committee, the town council of the member town in which such vacancy occurs shall fill such vacancy by election by a majority vote of the town council of said town for the unexpired term of the member whose office is thus vacated.”

In general, state law supersedes local laws, but Richmond Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth says the two laws are not in disagreement. In a letter to a resident later shared on Facebook with the solicitor’s permission, she wrote,

I did advise the Town Council that the Chariho Act supersedes the Home Rule Charter, and I believe my answer to that very narrow legal question was correct. However, my opinion did not recommend that the Town Council ignore the Charter, nor did I advise any of the Council members to ignore the Charter. In fact, I met with three of them individually and told them that I believed that notwithstanding the language of the Chariho Act, they should abide by the will of the voters as expressed not only in the November 8 election results but in the voters’ approval of the Charter in 2008. I also told them that failing to use the selection method required by the Charter would result in substantial legal expense to the town, and that I was sure they would agree that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

I do not believe that any of the Town Council members voted the way they did as a result of any advice they received from me. I think they had already decided what they would do before they asked me for a legal opinion. If you want to understand why Council members Colasante, Sheehan and Trimmer voted the way they did, I think you should address that question to each of them directly.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I also believe the Chariho Act does not conflict with the Richmond Town Council. The Chariho Act says the Town Council must elect a replacement to fill a school committee vacancy. The Charter prescribes who the Council is supposed to elect, namely the next highest vote-getter. The Council majority decided to create this controversy by ignoring the Town Charter.  For Charlestown readers, note that one legal opinion advising Richmond to ignore its own Charter came from Charlestown's Indian-fighter lawyer Joe Larisa - Will Collette

Another lawyer involved with this issue advised Chariho against the appointment of anyone other than Jennifer Purcell to the School Committee. Chariho School Solicitor Jon Anderson sent a letter to the Richmond Town Council saying, “I will advise the Chariho School Committee not to recognize any person putatively appointed to the Chariho School Committee in violation of both the Richmond Home Rule Charter and the Chariho Act because both can be read together. I have no choice in the matter to give such advice. Otherwise, every decision of the Chariho School Committee would be subject to challenge on the grounds that the Chariho School Committee was improperly constituted and, thus, every decision of the Chariho School Committee would be void.”

Offering an opposing opinion was an email from retired Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders Jr. In the message to the Richmond Town Council, Flanders wrote that the “state law generally trumps contrary local laws – and I do consider these two laws to be contrary because the Charter would deprive the Council of the discretionary choice that the state law provides…” Judge Flanders is a board member of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which supports and funds #ParentsUnitedRI.

At Thursday night’s Richmond Town Council meeting, the members decided on a 3-2 vote to ignore their solicitor’s advice. Councilmember Samantha Wilcox (Democrat) nominated Jennifer Purcell to fill the void on the Chariho School Committee, and the motion was seconded by Council Vice President Rich Nassaney (Republican). The motion was defeated on a 3-2 vote as the other three Republicans on the Council voted against Purcell. [Note: video from this town council meeting was not available on the Town Council’s website as of this report. 

Councilmember Helen Sheehan (Republican) then nominated Clay Johnson for the vacated School Committee position. Councilmember Wilcox called the nomination “inappropriate,” and mentioned the letters Johnson sent out to voters in his capacity as the Chair of the Gaspee Project, a sub-group of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a right-wing think tank run by Mike Stenhouse. In the letter Johnson fanned false conspiracy theories against “the ‘woke‘ indoctrination” of students and “left-wing ideologies and the over-sexualization of our students.” 

During the last election the Gaspee Project “pledged 100% of its support to elect the [#ParentsUnitedRI] slate of candidates in November 2022.”

Johnson previously served on the Chariho School Committee from 2017-2020. Previous to that he ran as a Republican for a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 2012, and lost to Democrat Larry Valencia. 

Councilmember Sheehan’s nomination of Johnson to the School Committee passed on a 3-2 vote, with Richmond Town Council President Mark Trimmer and Councilmember Michael Colasante voting in favor of Councilmember Sheehan’s nominee. Colasante is a member of #ParentsUnitedRI.

In an email with State Representative Megan Cotter (Democrat, District 39, Richmond, Exeter, Hopkinton), shared with Uprise RI, Councilmember Sheehan justified her nomination for Clay Johnson, saying, in part, “I believe that Jennifer Purcell is a talented, hard-working person. However, the Chariho Act says that the obligation of the Town Council is to elect the most qualified individual for the position. I take my responsibilities very seriously and will choose the individual whom I think will be the most benefit to the school committee. The voters also spoke in the last election by choosing two conservative people for the school committee and four conservative people for Town Council.”

In the Ocean State Current, Mike Stenhouse wrote, “Johnson, who spoke with The Current earlier this morning, said that ‘it’s full steam ahead’ to try to implement much needed reforms, including a responsible school budget that will lower taxes for town residents. He also indicated that after the budget season is over later this spring, he and his allies on the school committee will take up the issue of the divisive teachings and intrusions that are being imposed on students and their families.”

The term “decisive teachings and intrusions” refers to education efforts around racism and sexuality that #ParentsUnitedRI opposes.

Johnson was sworn into his position on Friday morning by State Senator Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) another member of #ParentsUnitedRI.

Uprise RI spoke to Jennifer Purcell by telephone on Saturday. Purcell was informed on January 5 about the resignation opening a seat on the School Committee and about the procedure to fill that seat as laid out in the charter. Purcell accepted the position, a necessary precursor to the Town Council taking up the issue and filling the vacancy. Had Purcell declined the position, the offer would have gone to the next highest vote getter on the list.

“I’m not trying to serve on the School Committee for political purposes. It’s because I’m an active mother, I’m an active parent. I believe that public education is very important to the future of our country and the prosperity of our community,” said Purcell. “But this is about my rights as a candidate, as a person, and about the rights of the voters in this town.”

The Chariho School Committee meets on Tuesday to authorize a plea to the Rhode Island Supreme Court to review, in a quo warranto proceeding, “the Appointment by the Richmond Town Council of Clay Johnson to the Chariho Regional School Committee.”

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