PROVIDENCE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island last week sent letters to nine fire districts warning that their voting rights policies could be unconstitutional.
Those districts’ charters include language that limits voting in fire district elections to property owners or to “taxable inhabitants,” the letters say. That’s unlawful, the ACLU of Rhode Island’s executive director said, pointing to a recently-concluded court case involving the Bonnet Shores Fire District in Narragansett.
“Voting is a fundamental right of the people, not the privileged,” Steven Brown said in an emailed statement about the letters. “Yet some fire districts appear stuck in the 19th century when it comes to determining who can exercise this right. Just as they presumably do not continue to rely on bucket brigades to put out fires, it’s far past time that they recognize that their voting procedures must meet 21st-century standards as well. If they fail to do so, the ACLU is prepared to consider legal action.”
Brown’s letters asked the fire districts to eliminate property voting requirements from their charters, or for clarity about their rules if the group’s reading of their charters is incorrect.
Fire districts in Rhode Island were created by the state General Assembly in past generations. Some grew into modern fire departments. Others serve as water utilities. But over the decades, some fire districts grew into something more like neighborhood beach associations, managing shoreline enclaves and not actually fighting fires. The Buttonwoods Fire District in Warwick, for example, has a public body dedicated to tennis, but not one to, say, smoke detectors.
Still, they maintain broad governmental powers, including the power to tax residents, set policies, and act as municipalities in miniature. These towns within towns even have elected leaders. The question is: Who votes to elect them?
The ACLU of Rhode Island says if the districts are performing government functions like imposing taxes, any otherwise eligible adult should be able to vote, even if they don’t own property.
“No matter how small it is, if it’s going to be a governmental entity, it has to be based on democratic principles,” said Jamie Rhodes, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Rhode Island who worked on issues related to fire district voting.
Four of the nine districts the ACLU is scrutinizing told The Boston Globe that the language about voting in their charters was not actually being followed. The Harmony Fire District in Glocester — which does actually have a fire department — said it has long followed the same voting eligibility rules as the state, despite what the charter says. The district, moderator David Laplante, was working on changing its charter to reflect current practices. It will have to go through the General Assembly.
The Quonochontaug Central Beach Fire District’s clerk, Maud Bailey, said in an email that the district does allow non-property owners who reside in the district to vote — although property owners within the district get two votes to submit on behalf of their lot.
That shoreline fire district, in Charlestown, does not have its own fire department, but it does issue beach passes, maintain a boat launch, and prohibit picnics on the beach.
The Hopkins Hill Road Fire District in Coventry said it changed its policies to eliminate the property ownership requirement when the ACLU of Rhode Island first reached out two years ago, although it did not change its charter at that time, a process that has to go through the General Assembly.
The Buttonwoods Fire District’s senior supervisor, David Splaine, said in response to Brown that the district became aware of constitutional concerns about limiting voting to property owners years ago. It changed its policies to allow all eligible residents to vote, but not its charter, because “this voting procedure has worked without a problem for decades.”
Rhodes, the ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney, said fire districts don’t get to pick and choose which parts of their charter to ignore, even if they’re choosing to ignore the problematic ones — because that could give them leeway to ignore other parts, too.
“If they know part of their charter is unconstitutional,” Rhodes said, “they should go and change it.”
Another fire district, the North Tiverton Fire District, which serves as a municipal water utility in that town, restricts voting to property owners, general manager Paul L’Heureux confirmed. L’Heureux said he would consult with the board about what action they’d potentially take in response.
Representatives from the other four fire districts the ACLU sent letters to — the Indian Lake Shores Fire District in South Kingstown, the Stone Bridge Fire District in Tiverton, the Nasonville Fire District in Burrillville, and the Weekapaug Fire District in Westerly — did not respond to requests for comment from the Globe on Wednesday.
The letters were sent just after the end of a court case involving voting rights in the Bonnet Shores Fire District. Bonnet Shores let people vote in its elections only if they owned at least $400 worth of property — including 16-square-foot beach cabanas. Property owners could vote even if they lived elsewhere.
Melissa Jenkins, a resident who wasn’t on her property’s deed and was denied the right to vote, sued. The ACLU of Rhode Island intervened to support the case. The fire district argued it was more like a condo association, with such a limited role that it didn’t have to let everyone vote. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter sided with Jenkins.
But that wasn’t all: Some fire district residents who owned property joined the suit, arguing that allowing non-resident property owners to vote unconstitutionally diluted their own votes.
In settling the case, the two sides agreed that all adult residents could vote if they were registered in time, even if they didn’t hold property. They also agreed to redo the district’s charter while taking the plaintiffs’ concerns about vote dilution into account.
The end result could end up kicking non-residents off the voting rolls when the fire district rewrites its charter, although the two sides differ on how inevitable that is.
Rhodes, the ACLU cooperating attorney, said the organization considers voter dilution an important issue in the broader picture of fire district voting rights. It’s not just democratic principles, but practical outcomes at stake, Rhodes said. Giving property owners the right to vote, or even multiple votes, will produce certain policies that would differ from those chosen in a system where everyone who lived there got one vote.
“I thought our shore was a right for everybody,” Rhodes said. “Why are we letting small fiefdoms keep people out?”
This story has been updated to add responses from some fire districts.
Read the letters: