PROVIDENCE — A Rhode Island shoreline fire district can’t restrict voting in its elections solely to people who own property, including beach cabanas, a state judge ruled Thursday in a decision hailed by civil rights advocates as a major win for the right to cast a ballot.
“We feel that this sends a strong message to the fire district,” said Matthew Oliverio, an attorney for the residents of the Bonnet Shores Fire District who had challenged the voting policies.
Oliverio said Thursday evening the ruling paves the way not just to change the policy to allow all adult residents to vote regardless of property ownership, but also monetary damages. Because other parts of the lawsuit haven’t yet been resolved, it’s unclear how much in damages the plaintiffs could receive, but Oliverio said they will continue to fight on.
Like other shoreline fire districts in Rhode Island, the Bonnet Shores Fire District in Narragansett doesn’t actually fight fires. It provides recreational services and trash removal, and operates local beaches.
But it is a creature of the state, created by the General Assembly almost 100 years ago: It can levy taxes, for instance, and is subject to records requests and open meeting requirements. It also sets rules. Bonnet Shores has parking regulations, an anti-littering ordinance, prohibitions on engaging in athletic activities on beaches without a permit, and a dog leash ordinance.
The people who help set those rules run in elections. But its charter restricts voting in those elections, including for seven members of the district council, the district moderator and the district clerk, to adults who own at least $400 worth of property in the district. That excludes renters or the adult children of property owners who are still living at home.
That’s unconstitutional under both the U.S. and state constitutions, Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter concluded in her ruling on the lawsuit, originally filed in March 2020.
Taft-Carter did not decide Thursday whether it was also unconstitutional, as the plaintiffs had argued, to allow non-residents to vote in fire district elections if they owned at least $400 worth of property. Letting non-resident taxpayers vote would dilute the voting power of residents, the plaintiffs argued. Taft-Carter said she needed more information about that to reach a conclusion, but Oliverio said he was hopeful the fire district would see the writing on the wall and change its policies voluntarily.
Property owners in the fire district include people who may live in a different state but own a beach cabana in Bonnet Shores.
The fire district had argued it didn’t have to let all residents vote in its elections because it wasn’t actually a government entity subject to one-person, one-vote rules. Its role was more limited, like a condo or neighborhood association. It didn’t enact laws touching on the maintenance of streets, the operation of schools, or police and — ironically — fire departments.
Taft-Carter didn’t buy the arguments, pointing to its broad powers, including collecting taxes.
“Given the undisputed facts of this case, the unavoidable conclusion is that the BSFD Charter’s denial of district residents’ right to vote on the basis of property ownership is unconstitutional,” she wrote.
Thomas Dickinson, attorney for the fire district, said Thursday he was still reviewing the decision.
“From what I’ve seen I’m a little disappointed in the decision, but I want to study it more carefully and consult with clients about what our next steps would be,” Dickinson said.
The suit was filed by residents of Bonnet Shores. One plaintiff is not listed on the deed of the home where she lives, and was ineligible to vote because of it. The other plaintiffs are property owners and residents there who argue letting other property owners who don’t live in town dilutes their voting power.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island also filed briefs in support of the plaintiffs. The organization said it was planning on reviewing the charters of other fire districts around the state to consider taking legal action. There are 40 fire districts in Rhode Island, according to state records, and six of them don’t provide fire services directly or contract out for them.
“The Court’s comprehensive and thoughtful decision should send a message to the many local government fire districts — particularly those regulating aspects of beach and shoreline communities — that these districts, which exercise government functions, cannot justify denying the vote to local residents who don’t own property just because they don’t have a fire department,” Lynette Labinger, one of the ACLU of Rhode Island’s cooperating attorneys, said in an emailed statement.