PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Board of Elections on Tuesday voted against calling a referendum to consider amendments to the charter of the Bonnet Shores shoreline fire district.
That decision marked the latest development in a long-running legal dispute over who gets to vote in the elections for fire district, an entity with governmental powers — and two beaches — tucked in an exclusive Narragansett village.
Attorney Jon Anderson told the board that it does not have the power to call an election without being directed to do so by the General Assembly. “You simply do not have the authority to grant this request,” he said.
Anderson noted that legislation was introduced in the General Assembly this year regarding the referendum, but that bill never passed.
The situation is similar to a Cumberland fire district that was consolidated about 10 years ago, Anderson said. “In that case, the General Assembly specifically enacted legislation calling on the Board of Elections to run the elections,” he said.
The board’s unanimous vote was greeted by applause from opponents of the proposed referendum and an objection from an advocate, Paula Childs.
Childs handed the board a copy of a petition supporting the referendum, and said, “We are really disappointed by your actions here. It’s beyond disappointing. We are being denied our right to vote and nobody in this state government is doing a thing about it. You could have done something today.”
The board chairwoman, Diane Mederos, “It’s kind of moot at this point, madam.”
Board member Louis A. DeSimone Jr. said, “By way of advice, they need to contact their representative and have a bill in the General Assembly and push it forward through the General Assembly. It’s not as if there’s no redress here.”
Afterward, Bonnet Shores Beach Club Condominium Association secretary Louise Healy said, “I think the board was correct, absolutely correct, and this small group of fire district residents goes from one venue to another, trying to get satisfaction.”
The Board of Elections also decided against issuing subpoenas to those who collected signatures on the nomination papers for Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who finished fourth in the First Congressional District Democratic primary on Sept. 5.
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office is still conducting a criminal investigation into potentially fraudulent signatures submitted on behalf of Matos.
At its meeting on Aug. 15, Board of Elections Executive Director Robert B. Rapoza said a review found “no obvious pattern of fraud” in the 1,256 nomination signatures submitted for Matos. But some board members called for issuing subpoenas to all those who collected signatures for the Matos campaign, citing media reports that some nomination papers contained the names of dead people and people who said they’d never signed those documents. The board approved a motion to subpoena the collectors after the primary.
On Tuesday, DeSimone made a motion to issue those subpoenas. “I know the election is over, but I don’t think the issue is over,” DeSimone said.
But no other board members backed his motion. Board member Marcela Betancur noted she had made the original motion in August, but she said the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island sent the board a letter raising concerns about issuing those subpoenas. “Some of the points are really well taken,” she said.
Among other things, ACLU Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown wrote that it would be “perfectly understandable” for anyone who gathered signatures for Matos to invoke Fifth Amendment rights while the attorney general’s investigation is underway.
“The board’s hearing is thus likely to place all these individuals in a very difficult position and unfairly stigmatize them before the public if they exercise their constitutional right under these circumstances,” Brown wrote. “We are also concerned about the long-term consequences of such a hearing, as it could have a chilling impact on the willingness of other individuals to volunteer to be signature collectors in the future.”
The board ended up voting 5 to 0 to have its legislative committee look at ways to improve the process of signature collection.
Matos attended the board meeting, and afterward she noted the attorney general’s office is investigating, and said, “No one more than me wants to find out exactly what happened.” As for changes in the signature collection process, she said, “The process has to be looked at, but it’s not something that started with my campaign.”
Matos, who has said a vendor defrauded her campaign, said that in the future she will rely on “people who care about me” rather than hiring a vendor to collect signatures. “My husband said that he is going to handle the signature process himself moving forward,” she said.