Fire District Accused Of Violating Open Meetings, Campaign Finance Laws

Three EG residents say the EGFD commissioners were wrong to send out postcards at taxpayer expense that gave reasons why the Fire District should remain independent.

Three East Greenwich residents – all members of the EG Republican Town Committee – have filed a complaints with the state Attorney General and the state Board of Elections claiming the EG Fire District commissioners acted unlawfully when they voted to spend up to $2,000 on a mailing to residents listing five reasions why the EGFD should not merge with the town.

The postcard was mailed to residents in advance of the election Nov. 6 that featured a ballot question asking voters if they thought the EGFD should be merged with the Town of East Greenwich. Currently, they are two separate governmental entities. 

The Town Council had voted to place that question on the ballot.

The postcard (a copy is attached, right) listed five reasons "why the EG Fire District should remain autonomous":

  • Strong governance open and transparent.
  • No debt through proper planning. 
  • On average lower tax increases than the town.
  • State of the art equipment and training.
  • Singular focus on fire and rescue services.

The complaint sent to the Attorney General, filed by Chuck Newton, Elizabeth Smith, and Edward Field, argued the Fire District meeting Oct. 25 was in violation of the open meetings law because of an “absence of prior notice regarding consideration of political involvement by the Fire District in a campaign to promote rejection of the referendum question.” 

The complaint also cited "the absense of prior notice of plans to vote on an expenditure of public funds for a political mailing." (A copy of the complaint is attached as a pdf, right.)

The agenda for that meeting Oct. 25 included the item: “Discuss non-binding
referendum public meeting forum.”

To Commission Chair Bill Daly, that language covered both the postcard and the expenditure vote.

“In no way does it say we’re urging people to vote against it,” he said. “We just gave reasons why we should remain autonomous.”

EGFD lawyer Scott Spear was not at the meeting Oct. 25, but Daly said Spear had been apprised of the board's intent and did not raise objections. 

Spear, through an assistant, said he had no comment. 

The Fire Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of sending the postcard, with Mark Gee the only dissenting vote.

Gee said Tuesday he objected to the postcard for two reasons. 

“I voted against the funds and the whole idea of sending out the card,” said Gee. “I felt that it should not be an ocassion where we took sides.”

Gee said he also questioned the legitimacy of the vote "because we weren't registered as a PAC [political action committee]."

Newton, Smith, and Field's complaint to the state Board of Elections echoes Gee's statement.

"By injecting itself in a local political issue campaign, and expending funds in excess of $100 therefor, the Fire District rendered itself subject to the Rhode Island Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act which requires the District to register under the act, and report expenditures made in an effort to influence voters on a public issue," the complaint reads. (A copy of that complaint is also attached as a pdf, right.)

Renu Englehart November 15, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Thanks for the clarification - that's what happens when you comment before coffee. OTH I am assuming the Fire District's atty isn't working for free in this issue?
Gene Dumas November 15, 2012 at 02:35 PM
All this over a non binding vote! Did the Town Council open a Can of Worms?? "if it aint broke......"
Cecil B DeMille November 15, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Elizabeth is correct that this is not a lawsuit. This is a request to the Attorney General's Office for an opinion as to whether it was a violation. The Fire Districtt's only cost would be having Mr. Spears write a response (if the Fire District so chooses). The penalty would most likely be an opinon that the action did or did not violate the Open Meetings Act and if they did an admonition against doing it again. It's important for people to bring these things to the AG's and the voters' attention because it keeps the issues in the officials' mind's the next time. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, Bad governemnt "occurs when good men do nothing."
FriendOfEG November 15, 2012 at 03:17 PM
This town council needs more of a workload. Clearly they have WAY too much idle time on their hands.
sue November 15, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Thanks for the update. I did receive my postcard and was curious how they were able to spend our money on this. I've been an EG resident for 25 years. The past 20 years I have been in the same house - my property taxes have doubled. In the same time frame- my fire taxes have tripled. (btw - residential fires have gone down nationally) So please explain this? This is an issue of the "Fox guarding the hen house". I can't wait for the FD to come under the same umbrella as the rest. Case in point they voted for themselves the postcards. I never received a postcard for why it should though. I'm glad someone is doing something!


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