A week late—you might say we’re keeping summer hours—but no dollars short we have excellent news for you (and if you follow our Facebook page you already know the outcome of last Wednesday’s Town Council meeting): Town Councilman Scott Schmitt’s resolution, designed to prevent the town of Cumberland from initiating a long, drawn-out, unnecessary and costly legal proceeding by calling for the removal of the Monastery as a potential site for the proposed public safety building (or, as some would say, complex) was APPROVED.
Yes, you may exhale.
But last Wednesday’s drama had us, at times, holding breath at the edge of our seats. The long wait (Schmitt’s resolution was last on a lengthy list of items) lead up to a midnight match between Town Councilors, Mayor Murray and Town Solicitor Tom Hefner. Town Council President Craig Dwyer, sighing, and displaying some confusion and consternation over the resolution, wondered if the Town Council had the right to entertain it.
Of course, they did.
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Highlights from the July 15, 2015 Town Council meeting—including some meaty dialogue: (Or you could watch the entire proceeding, beginning at 4:02:40, HERE.)
Taking into account the Office of Attorney General’s recent opinion that points to high hurdles over which the town would have to jump (with limited chance of making it to the other side) Schmitt urged Mayor Murray to take a closer look at the old Drop Zone site, as well as the adjacent Sher-Le-Mon swim club property. The owner of the swim club may be inclined to sell, and both sites could be combined. When asking about whether or not the $12.5 million bond for the construction of a safety complex could be broken down to fund two separate buildings, Schmitt asked, “We need to think about what if, what if we never find a 6 to 10 acre property?”
(Yes, what if? And don’t we need that new police station now? Wasn’t that the impetus for the rush into this debacle?)
President Dwyer didn’t seem to agree with Schmitt’s assessment of the AG’s opinion, but admitted he was “stepping in legal issues that [he] shouldn’t be stepping on” and so called on Hefner, but only after a confusing diversion to Schmitt’s building separation idea, and hearing out Town Councilman Art Lambi.
Lambi asserted (correctly) that the November 2014 referendum was clear and undebatable, and did not include a “plan for 20 acres, didn’t include a town hall, it did not include a senior center, and it didn’t include [the idea] to be the biggest and best public safety complex in the state of Rhode Island.” Lambi offered further clarification of the 2014 referendum saying that the question posed to taxpayers was, essentially, to ascertain whether or not they wanted a public safety “building.” (Although we now know that this question was not submitted to the Secretary of State, nor Cumberland voters, in the same form—rather, the question on the ballot appeared with the words “safety complex.”)
Lambi reminded the Council that such referendum passed by a narrow margin of 662 votes, and these votes did not speak to “visions” of additional land uses regardless of where a safety building might be located. Building more conservatively, Lambi offered, would keep Town Hall from increasing taxes and reduce ongoing maintenance costs.
Dwyer, redirecting the commentary, wondered if the town hadn’t already violated the 2004 Conservation Easement and Restrictive Covenant by performing some improvements on the property. (The Easement has more likely been violated by the town’s failure to properly manage and maintain the Monastery land in accordance with the Easement and its corresponding management plan.)
Pondering the use of the old Drop Zone as a safety building location, Dwyer said that the town might want to reserve that property for a new school as, he said, “we’ve got some decaying schools to say the least, and [the old Drop Zone] would be an ideal place for a school.”
(The property is large enough for a school but not a safety building?)
When Hefner finally spoke, he argued (as he has before) that the town already owns the property, “It was bought in 1968 and 1972 for municipal purposes.” (which we know is grossly incorrect and wholly irrelevant), He also reminded the Council that the Monastery land can be used for a safety building, as “we already have the authority, we don’t need the Councilor’s authority.”
“The Attorney General’s office didn’t rule out anything,” Hefner continued, “they gave an opinion. To say this is going to be a long, drawn-out, expensive legal battle I think is totally absurd— [the legal process] will be a declaratory judgment action. It will not take that long.” Following up with an explanation of the functions of Mayor and Council, Hefner puffed his own declaratory judgment: “The Council legislates. The Mayor is Mayor. The Mayor is the one who makes the decisions.”
Lambi quickly addressed Hefner’s inaccuracies, reminding him that it is the Town Council who are elected officials, and Hefner’s job is to assist both the Mayor and the Town Council, who “are both in this together; it’s not an us against you kind of thing . . . and for you to say that [the Mayor doesn’t need TC approval] is wrong, period.”
Lambi also recognized the hard work of the Safety Complex Location Committee and explained that the committee was not elected to make decisions, but rather appointed by the Mayor to make location recommendations.
Just prior to the official vote Murray spoke at the podium, making it clear that he did not have to form the SCLC. But he did, he said, “And they came back with some decisions and it will be my decision to move forward . . . The resolution is frustrating because what you’re really doing is tying my hands; I’m not a lawyer, I don’t think it’s legal; and we’ll find out. I’m trying to do the right job for the taxpayers . . . I have to reason what effect this resolution will have.” Turning to Lambi, he said, “You’re incorrect that we are going to put up a town hall—that’s a vision . . . oh boy, if we could get the parcel, there’s some room… Often in Cumberland we’ve not thought ahead.” Murray considered two or three other towns of which he thought had little foresight and “got the legs cut under them, with nowhere to go.”
“As a responsible mayor,” Murray went on, “I want to look at the whole picture; I got no horse in the race except to do the right thing for the town, the town residents . . . I gotta be prudent in this thing.” He then revealed that he would be meeting with the Attorney General in early August because he wants “to get [his] facts together. What are we facing? [The AG is] not gonna give me a decision; they’re gonna tell me, I hope: what are we facing under the Easement.”
(The Attorney General’s office has already issued its advisory opinion.)
“I have said that if we could work something, let’s go ahead and work it out, and we can put something together solid for the Monastery,” said Murray, “but again, I gotta have time. You wanna keep tying my hands go ahead, but at some point we’re gonna say to you (throws up hands) ‘I give up!’ But that’s not my style so you guys know that. But, again, I don’t want to be handcuffed. I want to have time, I’ve gotta look at it.” Murray then assured the Council: “I’ll do everything I can to make the best decision, but let me make the decision!”
(Yes, the rational person would surmise that Murray’s entreaty tilts toward lassitude in terms of evaluating alternative sites submitted, and further, points straight to the Monastery as his only choice for the placement of a safety building. Otherwise his hands most certainly would not be tied.)
In the dark hours after midnight the meeting was opened to public comment, and attorney Kim McCarthy restated what she’d been all along stating, just as the Office of Attorney General stated in its Advisory Opinion, that is: there is a high standard that the town must meet in order to revoke the Easement protecting the Monastery land. The Town Council plays a vital role in the matter, she said, as it is not clear if Mayor Murray has the right to institute a law suit or spend any dollars without TC approval. Hefner’s statement—trying to make it appear that the Council’s vote or opinion or authority has no relevance—was insincere, said McCarthy.
End of the night found four Councilmen voting YES (Peter Bradley, James Scullin, Lambi, and Schmitt), and three No (Josh Call-Fregeau, District 1; Robert Shaw, District 5; and, Dwyer, District 2) on Schmitt’s resolution (R-15-33).
And wasn’t it worth the wait.
(SEE the Resolution here: R-15-33 Remove Monastery Location)