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Thursday, December 14, 2023

Weekapaug fake fire district plays dirty

ACLU asks phony fire district to withdraw letters to donors supporting Spring Ave. extension fundraising campaign

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

Photo by Alex Nunes, The Public's Radio
The Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union is wading into a shoreline access dispute, telling a high-profile fire district to knock it off.

Steven Brown, executive director of the state’s ACLU branch, sent a formal letter to the Weekapaug Fire District in Westerly, asking it to rescind a number of letters notifying shoreline access activists who donated to a specific GoFundMe that they may be called to testify in the legal dispute over the Spring Avenue Extension right of way.

In his letter to the fire district, Brown described the effect of the letters sent by Joseph A. Farside Jr., a partner at the Providence-based law firm Locke Lord and attorney for the fire district, as having a chilling effect on the donors’ First Amendment rights.

“Singling out these donations as a justification to threaten the contributors with compulsory process and interrogation under oath could easily be interpreted as an attempt to chill core First Amendment activity,” Brown wrote.

The ACLU is asking the fire district to withdraw any current letters sent to donors, and for the fire district to disavow “this effort to chill public support for a position it opposes based solely on participation in a GoFundMe campaign.”

In an emailed statement to ecoRI News, the Weekapaug Fire District said it shared the ACLU’s commitment to transparency. “We contacted individuals who made their donation information public through the GoFundMe because they are meaningfully engaged in the issue and may have information that is relevant to the case,” the fire district wrote.

The Weekapaug Fire District, a quasi-government organization that acts more like a homeowners’ association than it does anything to do with fire suppression, is contesting a popular public access point in Westerly known as the Spring Avenue Extension. The fire district claims it owns the right of way (ROW), and that it’s private, not open to the public. The matter is pending before the Coastal Resources Management Council.

Opposing the fire district’s ownership claim on the ROW is Westerly resident Caroline Contrata. Two attorneys, Michael Rubin, a retired assistant attorney general, and Sean Lyness, a professor at the New England School of Law, have taken up Contrata’s case pro bono, but to help with related legal costs, Contrata opened a GoFundMe fundraiser earlier this year, hoping to raise $15,000.

But attorneys for the fire district sent out several letters to the donors of Contrata’s GoFundMe, indicating they had been identified as a potential witness in the legal proceedings over the Spring Avenue Extension right of way, which is currently in its discovery phase.

“Based on your donation to Ms. Contrata’s fundraiser, you have been identified as a potential witness in the Spring Avenue Extension CRMC matter,” Farside wrote in a letter dated Dec. 1. “We would like to interview you in the near term and potentially depose you.”

Warwick resident Richard Langseth said he received one of the letters from Farside, and shared it with others in a popular shoreline access Facebook group. He wasn’t the only one; others in the Facebook group began sharing screenshots of similar letters from the fire district.

 “I said, ‘Oh shoot, it’s the Weekapaug Fire District, you gotta be kidding me,’” Langseth said. “That was my initial reaction.”

Langseth said he notified the ACLU about the letters, and it’s his copy of the letter from Farside, addressed to both Langseth and his wife, Jo-Ann, that’s attached to the formal letter from Brown. According to Langseth, the ACLU responded to his complaint right away, and the formal letter came not long after.

Meanwhile, as a result of the letters, the Weekapaug Fire District may have become a victim of the Streisand effect. Contrata’s GoFundMe fundraiser has seen a surge of new donations over the past week as a result of the controversy. As of Monday, the fundraiser had garnered $14,648 toward its $20,000 goal.

“You know what happened? The donation went through the roof,” Langseth said. “Everybody said, ‘OK, I want to be on the list too.’”