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Sunday, April 16, 2023

Right versus left in battle for control of Chariho schools

Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Chariho School Committee Case

By Cynthia Drummond for the Beaver River Valley Community Association (BRVCA)

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / WhoWhatWhy (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Oral arguments were presented Thursday before the Rhode Island Supreme Court in the case of Richmond School Committee candidate Jessica Purcell, who is challenging the Richmond Town Council, Clay Johnson and the Chariho School Committee over the council’s appointment of Johnson to fill a vacancy on the school committee.

Purcell, a Democrat who came third in the Nov. 8, 2022 election, lost her bid for a School Committee seat by just 27 votes.  When Richmond committee member Gary Liguori announced in January, 2023 that he was moving out of Rhode Island and vacating his seat, it was believed that under the provisions of the town’s Home Rule charter, Purcell, with the next-highest number of votes, would be named to fill the seat.

But on Jan. 19, three of the five members of the Richmond Town Council appointed Republican political operative Clay Johnson to the vacant seat.

Purcell hired attorney Jeffrey Levy and took her case to the Supreme Court.

Named as defendants and represented by attorney Joseph Larisa are Johnson, the Richmond Town Council and the Chariho School Committee.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Joe Larisa is a hard-line MAGA conservative who has been employed by the Town of Charlestown as "Special Solicitor for Indian Affairs." In that role, Larisa monitors the Narragansett Indian Tribe and then acts to block any measure or effort that might improve the economic or social conditions of the Tribe. Tribal leaders have frequently called him racist. - Will Collette.

Several Johnson supporters were in the court room, including Town Council members Michael Colasante and Helen Sheehan, both of whom voted to name Johnson to the School Committee.

Also present were Chariho School Committee attorney Jon Anderson and attorney Mark Reynolds, the current Richmond Town Moderator.

Anderson said he had been instructed by the committee not to comment on the case.

“The School Committee voted for me to take no position,” he said. 

The arguments

Each attorney had 20 minutes to present his case and an additional 10 minutes each for rebuttals. Levy presented his arguments to the five Justices, Chief Justice Paul Suttell and Justices Maureen McKenna Goldberg, William Robinson III, Erin Lynch Prata and Melissa Long.

At issue is whether the town charter or the Chariho Act takes precedence. The three council members who voted to appoint Johnson, who did not run for election, over Purcell, who received 1,469 votes, defended their decision on the grounds that the Chariho Act, state legislation passed in 1958 governing the Chariho Regional School District, took precedence over the Richmond Home Rule Charter, which was approved by voters in 2008 and ratified by the state legislature.  

The charter states that in the case of a vacancy on the 12-member Chariho School Committee, the person who received the next-highest number of votes should be named to fill the seat – in this case, Purcell.

Levy’s argument is based on the compatibility of the Chariho Act and the town charter, because the act requires the Town Council to fill a vacant School Committee seat and the charter states that the person chosen by the council should be the next-highest vote-getter.

Justice Lynch Prata posed a question that lies at the heart of the case.

“Is that what the voters of Richmond intended, in terms of having the next vote-getter win, and if that’s what they intended, did the General Assembly ratify that piece?” she asked Levy. “Because I don’t think that anybody’s trying to say that you were intending to repeal the Chariho Act.”

Levy replied that harmonizing the Chariho Act and the town charter would eliminate the need for the specific ratification of certain provisions.

“This court’s analysis, to me, seems to be that it’s possible to comply with both laws here,” he said. “It’s possible to comply with the Chariho Act in that the council appoints the replacement, and it’s possible to comply with the charter if the council appoints the runner-up from the last election.”

Goldberg, who was critical throughout Levy’s argument, said she believed that Richmond voters wanted the Chariho Act to prevail in cases where the act and the charter were incompatible.

“You have a provision in the Chariho Act that dictates how vacancies on that board are to be filled, period,” she said.

Levy countered that the town charter was not inconsistent with the Chariho Act.

“The charter provision is not inconsistent with the Chariho Act. It is consistent with the Chariho Act,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” Goldberg replied.

The justices questioned Levy’s assertion that when the General Assembly approved the town charter, it was, in effect, ratifying it in its entirety.

Justice Lynch-Prata asked what would be necessary for the state to specifically validate the town charter.

“What’s required for express validation?” she asked.

Levy replied that the General Assembly had ratified the entire charter, making further ratification unnecessary.

“The General Assembly ratified the entire charter in all respects which require ratification,” he said.

Goldberg pointed out that the Chariho Act applies not only to Richmond to all three Chariho towns, including Charlestown and Hopkinton.

“We have a charter and we have a state law that doesn’t just apply to Richmond,” she said. “It’s three towns, and it specifically says how vacancies are to be filled.”

Levy concluded his argument by alluding to the politics motivating the three Republican council members to name fellow Republican Johnson to the School Committee.

“There’s a political motivation here, but that’s beside the point,” he said. “The point is…”

Goldberg broke in,

“There’s more than a political motivation,” she said. “This is not a happy marriage over at Chariho, but that is not before us, happily.” 

Larisa’s arguments 

Central to Larisa’s arguments is the assertion that the Chariho Act and the town charter cannot, as Levy had argued, be harmonized because they are fundamentally incompatible.

“Why is it not?” Justice Robinson asked. “Why don’t the canons [ordinances] apply if they’re both actions of the General Assembly? ... Taking the two actions of the General Assembly, the Chariho Act and the charter, which it ratified, why doesn’t the charter control this issue, because it’s so specific, and because it’s later in time?”

Larisa responded that the General Assembly had never ratified the charter provision in question. He also cited case law showing the diverse ratification mechanisms employed by the General Assembly.

“As this court knows, a home rule charter community has certain rights in areas of local concern. It has no rights for ordinance and charter in areas of statewide concern,” he said.

Robinson questioned Larisa’s assertion that state law trumped the town charter.

“Where has that ever been said?” he asked.

“It was ratified,” Robinson continued, referring to the town charter, “so therefore, it becomes state law for Richmond. It’s an act of the General Assembly.”

Larisa said that the General Assembly had to specifically ratify the provision of the charter in order for that provision to be state law.

“The way a charter, or a provision of a charter, becomes state law is express ratification of the provision…saying all laws are repealed,” he said. “Without the ‘all laws are repealed’ in consistent … language or without express ratification… the provision at issue, the Chariho Act’s vacancy – filling provision, has simply never been repealed by the General Assembly and since it’s an inferior charter provision, or ordinance, it succumbed to the Chariho Act.”

(It should be noted that it would not be legally possible for Richmond to unilaterally repeal any provisions of the Chariho Act, since any and all amendments to the act require the consent of all three towns.)

Robinson also took issue with Larisa’s description of the charter as inferior.

“What do you mean an inferior charter provision,” he said. “The charter commission worked hard to come up with the charter. They went to Providence, to the General Assembly, and they passed it. It’s not inferior. It’s later in time, more specific, and, frankly, superior.” 

Outside the Licht Judicial Complex after the arguments had concluded, Levy repeated his assertions that the charter and the Chariho Act are compatible and the charter had become state law when it was ratified by the General Assembly.

Levy also repeated that no part of the Chariho Act could, as Larisa suggested, be repealed because all three towns must agree on amendments.

“You can’t repeal the Chariho Act provisions, because then you would be leaving Charlestown and Hopkinton hanging without a way to replace, or fill vacancies,” he said. “So, the fact that there was no repeal is irrelevant here, from my perspective.”

Purcell, who was in the court room, said the legal arguments differed from her perception of her case.

“A lot of words, a lot of analyzing that is much different from the way I look at it and the way I think most people I speak to look at it,” she said. “I think it was very simple and clear what the Town Council should have done from the start and it’s unfortunate we’ve had to go through this many months of additional analyzing and back-and-forth and legal fees, honestly. So, I’m not sure how the judges will decide. They seemed sort of split about what they felt was the best way to interpret the conflict or the lack of conflict or what takes precedence, so I’m really not sure what’s going to happen.”

Johnson and Larisa did not speak to reporters after the proceeding.

The court is expected to issue its decision in the coming weeks.