PROVIDENCE — In the rich annals of Rhode Island legal battles, this case lacks the high-society intrigue of the Claus von Bülow murder trial or the envelope-full-of-cash evidence unveiled during the “Operation Plunder Dome” investigation of Providence City Hall.
But it’s tough to find more quintessentially Rhode Island litigation than a current lawsuit involving Bonnet Shores and its cabanas, which for generations have symbolized summer living at the beach in Narragansett.
A group of residents is suing the Bonnet Shores Fire District, claiming it’s unconstitutional for the district to prevent residents from voting if they own less than $400 worth of property. They say that restriction prevents some year-round residents from voting while giving voting rights to nonresidents who own beach cabanas — including 16-square-foot bathhouse units.
The residents first filed the suit in March 2020, but the case drew renewed attention this week when the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed a legal brief, tracing the history of voting restrictions in Rhode Island and blasting the idea of limiting voting rights to property owners.
“The charter of the Bonnet Shores Fire District appears caught in a time loop that has ignored the evolution of voting rights in the United States and Rhode Island since it was first enacted in 1932,” ACLU lawyers wrote. “This relic of a period of widespread disenfranchisement is unconstitutional and cannot endure.”
But Thomas M. Dickinson, a lawyer for the Bonnet Shores Fire District, said the case hinges on whether the fire district fits into the category of government entities where a one-person-one-vote rule applies, and he argued that it does not. Rather, he said, the district is more akin to a condominium association or neighborhood association.
“The Bonnet Shores Fire District is not a fire district at all,” Dickinson said. “It does not do things that a municipality does, notably such as fighting fires, and it is not responsible for the school system, the police, or sewage disposal.”
He said the district simply maintains the beach, as well as a boat dock and moorings, and handles trash removal.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU in Rhode Island, contended that the fire district’s charter gives it “very broad powers,” allowing it to enact ordinance and impose fines or even prison sentences for violations.
“That is not trivial,” he said. “If it wants to be a homeowners association, that’s fine, but that is not what it is.”
Under the Bonnet Shores Fire District charter, voters may elect a clerk, three tax assessors, fire wardens, a tax collector, and a district council of up to seven qualified voters.
Despite having authority over the local community, the Bonnet Shores Fires District restricts the right to vote to those who hold title to property worth more than $400 in equity that has been recorded for at least 90 days. That means people who rent residential property within the district, or who are spouses or adult children of title holders, can’t vote, the ACLU said.
“The limitation of voting rights to the favored ‘propertied’ classes represents a throwback to earlier, long-discredited notions of who is entitled to participate in our state and local government,” ACLU cooperating attorneys James Rhodes and Lynette Labinger wrote.
And Rhode Island “shares the country’s unenviable history of limiting the franchise on the basis of race, gender, and wealth,” they said.
They cited the Dorr Rebellion, an insurrection in 1842 that grew out of dissatisfaction with a Rhode Island constitution that restricted suffrage to landholders or their oldest sons. They also said it wasn’t until 1928 that the General Assembly repealed municipal property requirements limiting the right to vote in municipal elections.
“Who gets to participate in an election is one of the most critical threshold questions to ask,” the ACLU lawyers wrote. “The Supreme Court described the right to vote as the one right that is preservative of all others.”
The ACLU noted that this lawsuit comes “at a time when efforts to impose barriers on the right to vote are percolating across the country.”
In the lawsuit, lawyer Matthew T. Oliverio and Santiago H. Posas said Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea’s office wrote to the fire district in August 2019, suggesting that the district’s distribution of voting rights was unconstitutional and citing a 1981 state Supreme Court case, Flynn v. King.
In October 2019, a member of the fire district council moved to amend the charter to comply with Flynn v. King, but that motion was not seconded.
While claiming that some residents are denied voting rights, the lawsuit also says that the fire district lets thousands of nonresidents vote, “including over 4,000 owners of beach club bathhouses or cabanas” at the Bonnet Shores Beach Club. The suit claims that letting those nonresidents vote has “wrongfully debased and diluted” the vote of residents in the fire district.
Dickinson noted that the plaintiffs were trying to get voting rights for themselves while seeking to “strip non-resident property owners of the voting rights that the legislative charter grants them.” But the lawsuit only named the fire district as defendants, not those who would lose voting rights, as required, he said, so the judge tossed out parts of the lawsuit.
A hearing had been set in state Superior Court in Washington County for June 22, but now that the ACLU has gotten involved, the hearing has been rescheduled to Sept. 21.