Amid a chorus of boos, three of the five Richmond Town Council members rejected the second-highest vote getter, Jessica Purcell, and quickly moved to appoint Clay Johnson to the vacant seat on the Chariho School Committee.
The meeting was continued from Jan. 17, when an overflow crowd in the council chambers necessitated the postponement.
About 70 people attended the council meeting on Thursday, in the auditorium of Chariho Middle School.
The discussion of the selection of a replacement for departing school committee member, Gary Liguori, has centered on the legal obligations of the town, but it is also evident that politics have played a pivotal role.
The debate has centered on which statute applies in the school committee case; the Chariho Act, which is state law, or the Home Rule Charter for the town.
Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth has stated that the Chariho Act supersedes the charter, but others, including attorney and Town Moderator Mark Reynolds, and Chariho School Committee attorney, Jon Anderson, have submitted written opinions stating that the Chariho Act and the Home Rule Charter do not conflict and that Purcell, who received the second-highest number of votes, should be appointed.
(Editor's note: The Chariho Act states that the town appoints the replacement for a departing Committee member while the Town Charter specifies that the next highest vote-getter becomes the replacement. Both of those regulations could be honored by the Council appointing the next highest vote getter. Instead, a majority of Council members voted for a member of their political party who was not the next highest vote getter.)
Purcell out, Johnson in With most of the audience attending the meeting for the school committee discussion, the school committee item was moved up to the top of the agenda. The ensuing discussion, which continued for nearly an hour and a half, was, at times, rancorous.
Councilor Samantha Wilcox opened the discussion by stating that she had been elected to the council to uphold the town charter and because of that oath, as well as town precedent in following the charter for past appointments, she was making a motion to appoint Purcell, who lost the election by a narrow margin – 28 votes.
“The voters want her,” Wilcox said. “1,469 taxpayers voted for her. We should not ignore their wishes. “
Michael Colasante countered, citing Ellsworth’s memo and then reading an opinion authored by retired justice Robert Flanders that affirms that as state law, the Chariho Act supersedes the town charter.
After reading a list of Flanders’s legal, political and academic accomplishments, Colasante said, “Mr. Flanders opinion states, ‘yes, I confirmed that state law generally trumps contrary local laws and I do consider these two laws to be contrary, because the council would deprive the council of the discretionary choice that the state law provides as to the selection of the replacement for the resigning member’.”
Council Vice President Richard Nassaney, a Republican, implored the councilors to put aside their personal political opinions and respect the will of Richmond voters. “You need to do the will of the people and that is, put Ms. Purcell on the seat,” he said. “Yes, I may not have voted for her but that’s irrelevant and quite honestly, it would be quite shameful for us to kind of spat [sic] I the person’s face. I know that some of the councilors here at this table don’t believe that. They think that they need to put in someone with a different political view. This isn’t politics. This is your children. This is their education.”
But Colasante and councilor Helen Sheehan, who, with council President Mark Trimmer are members of the conservative education lobbying group, Parents United R.I., countered that Richmond voters had demonstrated that they wanted to elect more conservatives to the school committee.
“The voters very clearly voted two conservative candidates and there were also four conservative candidates for Town Council , and the voters very clearly voted for the four conservative voices, so I take my responsibilities very seriously so, I would say that the Chariho Act, I follow what Chief Justice Flanders said, that the Chariho Act gives us responsibility to make the best decision that we can for someone to be on an important position of school committee,” Sheehan said.
Colasante said he had heard from residents during the election campaign who told him that they wanted a “more conservative-minded person” on the school committee.
“Many, many of these people brought up the point that the Department of Justice, with the NEA [teachers’ union] drafted a letter stating that anybody – all right? – that pretty much went against a school committee – all right? – in their opinion, was considered a domestic terrorist,” he said.
As his comments were greeted by groans from audience members, Colasante persisted.
“With all these things, we can’t have our heads in the sand,” he said.
Trimmer cited another legal opinion supporting Ellsworth’s memo, this one from attorney Joseph Larisa whose clients include the Town of Charlestown where he is the “Town Solicitor for Indian Affairs.”
Trimmer noted that he had no personal opinions of Purcell. “I don’t know Jessica Purcell,” he said. “I’ve never spoken to her in my life.” (He was immediately corrected by Purcell, who noted that the two had spoken.)
During the public forum, former school committee William Day described Purcell as the most qualified person for the committee position and blamed politics for the reluctance of some members to appoint her.
“I’m a registered Republican, but right now, I’m very embarrassed about being a registered Republican, because Jessica is the most qualified individual that I’ve heard out there in the community to be our next school committee representative” he said.
Several residents, including former town officials, urged council members to follow the provisions of the charter.
Former council President Nell Carpenter said, “…as a Richmond Town Council member, just as I did when I raised my right hand, I swore to uphold and preserve the town charter rule of Richmond, not the Chariho Act.”
Trimmer closed the forum and called for a vote on the motion to appoint Purcell. Wilcox and Nassaney voted in favor and Trimmer, Sheehan and Colasante were opposed, defeating the motion.
Immediately after the vote, Colasante, who, on several occasions has said that he is new to the council and therefore needs additional time to do his due diligence on important matters, quickly and without hesitation made a motion to appoint Clay Johnson to the committee, taking many residents by surprise.
Several people, including Nassaney and Wilcox, objected, arguing that the motion could not be voted on because the Johnson’s appointment was not on the agenda, but the discussion continued.
Clay Johnson and the Gaspee Project
Johnson, who served on the school committee from 2016 to 2020, chairs the conservative group The Gaspee Project, which donated more than $20,000 to the printing of flyers distributed to voters on Oct. 14, before the November election.
The flyers urged voters to reject Purcell, a Democrat, and independents Ryan Callahan and William Day and vote for Republicans Patricia Pouliot and Kathryn Colasante (the wife of Michael Colasante).
The full story on the flyers can be found on in the Nov. 5 edition of the BRVCA blog. It is also important to note that there is a connection between the Gaspee Project and attorneys Larisa and Flanders, whose opinions Colasante and Trimmer submitted as supporting Ellsworth’s memo. -Link Here- and -Here-
Flanders and Larisa represented the Gaspee Project in a 2019 lawsuit, in which the group challenged the state requirement that required the organization to report expenditures made to support issues or individuals.
The challenge was unsuccessful, both in the U.S. District Court in Providence and later, in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, in which the Gaspee Project was represented by Larisa.
Council precedent ignored
Several residents, including former council President Joseph Reddish, asked the council to delay Johnson’s appointment and advertise for the position.
“As a former council member, it has been the pattern of this council for many, many years that if we have an opening on a board or commission, that we advertise it for a minimum of at least 30 days,” he said. “It has not been advertised for this position for the school committee, so you’re going out of order with past precedent…Tonight, what’s been displayed, except for a couple of council members, is that we’ve lost our integrity in listening to the people of the town of Richmond…And let it be known, I am sure that there are people in this community that will be suing the Town of Richmond for a poor decision that’s unauthorized. Lastly, you are violating OMA [the state Open Meetings Act]. It was not advertised that you would be selecting anybody else. “
The debate ended and Colasante announced that it was time to vote on the Johnson appointment. With Trimmer, Colasante and Sheehan voting in favor, Nassaney and Wilcox, who voted against the appointment were outvoted and the motion passed, as furious residents shouted “shame,” and “recall.”
Asked how he felt about the hasty and unexpected appointment of Johnson, Nassaney replied, “For once in my life, I think I’m actually speechless,” he said. “I’m disgusted, actually.”