The town solicitor's decision to review the merits of the Town Council's Jan. 23 decision to exempt up to $7,000 in property taxes for the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce was merely a side note at Monday's meeting where resident's crowded chambers and demanded apologies for comments made two weeks ago during the discussion for that decision.
A letter by former Rep. John Patrick Shanley to the council said that per Rhode Island general law, a 501 c 6 nonprofit designation is not enough to warrant a property tax exemption, but that organizations must demonstrate charitable works. Michael Ursillo, town solicitor, said the town would confer with the SRI Chamber of Commerce to delineate its charitable history and validate the Jan. 23 decision.
It was letters of a different kind that drew much of the focus on Monday night. Public members were expressly forbidden to address any councilmember personally, but the letters submitted to the agenda by residents spelled it out plainly enough.
Deborah Bergner and Maureen Martin – along with at least three other residents who submitted letters to the council in its agenda – want an apology from Councilman James O’Neill. They’re not going to get one, O’Neill said after the meeting.
“Locally folks have been pummeling me for 12 years, I have been under constant political attack for 12 years,” said O’Neill. “I push back only when I am accused of impropriety. I’m dishonest? I am not dishonest, so I do not like somebody calling me dishonest.”
On Jan. 23 Bergner, of 345 Kettle Pond Road, asked the question that ignited that quarrel. She wondered whether any Town Council members were members of the SRI Chamber of Commerce and whether they should recuse themselves in the decision regarding the tax abatement.
“These are foolish, stupid dumb arguments,” said O’Neill in retaliation.
Bergner believes O’Neill was out of line with the severity of his remarks.
“I expect an apology for the comments by a Town Council member,” said Bergner. “I was using my right as a citizen and taxpayer to ask questions and participate and I was treated poorly.”
Bergner returned on Monday and asked the question again.
“Just because something is legal, does not mean it is ethical and I believe in this matter there is an appearance of impropriety,” she said. Bergner mentioned campaign contributions, political endorsements, and council members own admissions that they had benefitted personally from their membership in the chamber.
Michael Ursillo, town solicitor reiterated his Jan. 23 opinion.
“Merely being a member without being on the board of directors does not produce a conflict,” said Ursillo. “I believe the advice I gave you was good advice and involved not decisions from the court, but decisions from the [state] Ethics Commission.”
“We know when we have to recuse ourselves, we know when there is a conflict of interest, so I appreciate your reiterating that,” said O’Neill.
Although handful of people in the audience spoke in support of Bergner, O’Neill said the situation did not warrant an apology.
“An apology is not necessary,” he said after the meeting. “They started the battle, they wanted war. The implication was – from Mrs. Bergner – that there was impropriety and you heard Mr. Ursillo say there was none.”
The other council members did conceded, however.
“When something like this happens, it really is something that is embarrassing to each member of the council,” said Mary S. Eddy, councilwoman. “I can apologize, and I feel badly that it occurred.”
“I would like to apologize as a Town Council member,” said Kathleen Fogarty, councilwoman. “It is embarrassing to me, although I feel, Ms. Bergner, that I don’t personally owe you the apology.”
Acting Chairwoman Carol Hagan McEntee told the audience the council would conduct internal discussions with council President Ella Whaley before deciding any action. Whaley was absent from Monday night’s meeting.
“I believe I came under personal attack, and I feel as though I am not going to get an apology tonight,” said Bergner. “This council has never been so unwelcoming, so if that was your goal, you have achieved it.”
The National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI) made it clear, it expected an apology.
“If at future meetings where a turnout where the turnout would be larger than tonight, who would I need to contact in town government to prepare for that,” asked Patrick Crowley, the government relations director to NEARI.
“I’m bothered by people coming up here and sort of by innuendo saying that they are going to flood the hall,” said Robert Trager, resident.
McEntee found herself apologizing for remarks she made on Jan. 23 as well.
“I feel that I was treated rudely by a councilwoman who targeted me personally as I sat in the audience and insinuated something about my job,” said Martin, a lobbyist and director of political activities with the Providence chapter of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. “Although I believe it pales in comparison to what happened to Ms. Bergner.”
During the Jan. 23 discussion around granting the tax abatement to the SRI Chamber of Commerce, Martin rebuked the idea, citing the chamber’s affiliation with political action committees and lobbyists. She said a politically motivated organization should not be on the receiving end of town hand out. Councilwoman Carol Hagan McEntee later in the discussion asked Martin, “You’re a lobbyist, aren’t you?”
Martin alleged McEntee’s conduct was inappropriate because it was several minutes after she addressed the council and she had returned to her seat.
“It is not only my right, but my obligation here to ask questions – of any people who come up here – for clarification and understanding of any issue,” McEntee said on Monday. She told Martin her comments were not meant to be argumentative and apologized if they appeared so.
“I would like to know what the council will do to ensure the public that this is a safe place to come here and express opinions where you won’t be embarrassed or singled out,” said Martin.
O’Neill said the uproar boils down to competing political agendas.
“The way this began was when Ms. Martin spoke, talking about lobbying,” said O’Neill. “Her opening salvo was to do with [the SRI Chamber of Commerce’s] support of Engage RI and pension reform. The implication was that this was anti-labor.”
An earlier version of this article cited an incorrect position for Patrick Crowley's with NEARI. Patch regrets the error.