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Politics as Usual: RI's favorite drama continues to reach new heights (OPINION)

April 3, 2012

Writing a column like this, it is always a good idea to have a different mix of subject matter each week to keep things interesting for readers. Well, someone please tell that to Central Falls.
That unfortunate municipality just can’t seem to keep itself out of the headlines, so we’ll have to keep discussing it here.
Besides, if you live in Rhode Island and you think what’s going on in Central Falls doesn’t matter to you, then you’ve got another thing coming.
As this was being written late last week, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Frank Bailey just handed the city’s receiver’s office its first judicial setback, saying the school department is beyond the reach of its powers because they are, in effect, no longer part of the city.
It can no longer be said that the structure of the city’s government includes the care, control, and management of the schools, which is precisely the business of the school district?
Bailey said that in a 59-page decision that rejected Receiver Robert Flanders’ assertion that the school district is part of the city–and therefore the debts and contract obligations of the school district are obligations of the city–which would have allowed him to throw out the teachers’ contract and take other unilateral actions to reduce spending as he did on the municipal side.
Bailey accepted the argument of the Central Falls Teachers Union and other unions representing school employees that when Central Falls amended its charter in 2007 to, among other things, remove a reference to the ‘School Committee,’–which had been abolished when the state took over the schools in 1991– the city and its schools parted ways.
That amendment, the judge ruled, “effectively severed the city’s constitutional connection to the school district.” The political and constitutional separation of the school district from the city, he declared, is complete.
The thing is, I don’t see anywhere in the decision where Bailey directly ties Central Falls’ schools to the state, either. An argument could be made that he has made it a free-floating entity ruled only by the Board of Trustees, which has been working as a sort of school committee.
Bailey leaves his options open, saying: “I do not suggest that this state of affairs (the divorce of the schools from the city) is not temporary or provisional. Still, the court cannot know the future and, in any event, must judge this controversy according to present circumstances, not circumstances as they may yet develop.”
That sounds like legalese for “this baby is someone else’s problem.”
If the political and constitutional separation of the school district from the city is indeed complete, as the judge stated so emphatically, can the city wash its hands of the responsibility to pony up any money to fund school operations? If so, then what? Is the state on the hook? Or could it also back away, leaving, as the judge said, the Board of Trustees in charge and responsible for finding a way to fund the schools? What are they going to do, pass the hat at their next meeting? Organize a bake sale? Sell really, really good chocolate chip cookies for $1 million each?
The immediate upshot of this is that Flanders was hoping to rip up the schools’ labor contracts and demand that the unions renegotiate new ones with him. Now his is going to have to ask very nicely and hope the unions will agree to changes.
Technically, the judge’s decision merely rejected Flanders? motion for a summary judgment and he actually left the door ajar for the dispute to go to a trial. But the 59 pages make it pretty clear that the unions won and
Flanders lost, and a trial would likely not change the judge’s mind. But we’ll know for sure after Bailey meets with the lawyers.
That was just one of Flanders’ woes last week.
Another was the ACLU’s lawsuit against him for allegedly delegating some of his duties to Chief of Staff Gayle Corrigan. Flanders bluntly rejects the premise of the suit and clearly considers it little more than a nuisance.
He calls the shots and he signs the orders. If he wants to send Corrigan out to catch the flak from angry citizens instead of absorbing the abuse himself, who is to say he can’t? That’s the brave new world of receivership, a place that doesn’t seem all that accommodating to the niceties of civil liberties.
In a bit of good news for the receiver, there was apparently a last-minute flood of applications from people who want to sit on the Charter Review Commission Flanders is forming.
I don’t want to sound like Negative Nate here, but a nine-member commission, whose members will be hand-picked by Flanders and whose mission, it would seem at the outset, is to come up with a charter amendment abandoning the elected mayoral office and swapping it for an appointed city manager? It ain’t going to happen. No way, no how.
If that amendment is seen as the work of nine collaborators of the receiver, looking to dump the popular mayor, voters are going to hoot it right off the ballot.
Flanders simply hasn’t generated the good will in Central Falls to pull something like that off. Almost anything perceived by the citizenry as his doing is bound to be rejected outright. If Flanders were to go head-to-head against Mayor Charles Moreau in a vote of Central Falls residents, the receiver would be hard-pressed to match the 22 percent of the vote challenger Hipolito Fontes received during the last election in 2009.
Not only that, but in the last two years the people of Central Falls have had quite enough of not having a say in who will govern them. They are going to want to vote for the guy or gal who will be the next leader of their city, no matter who they pick. They are quite likely to rally around the deposed Charles Moreau who, along with the ousted city council members, has garnered a lot of sympathy with the electorate during the state occupation of the city.
Besides, why is the good government answer always less democracy? Taking decisions out of the hands of voters? A city manager is going to be beholden to the City Council, which would have the power of hiring and firing managers.
Why would Central Falls voters want to remove one of the checks and balances of city government? If the City Council passes a bad ordinance, is the city manager they appointed and whom they can fire going to veto it?
Say what you will about Central Falls; it’s never dull.

Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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