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SOUTH KINGSTOWN â€“ The South Kingstown Town Council approved the preliminary budget for FY 2012-2013 with two amendments â€“ a $7,000 tax appropriation to the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and a $500 increase to the Washington County Regional Planning Council.
To balance the $89 million budget, the town council also increased the fund for payment-in-lieu-of-taxes from $227,206 to $234,706, an amount equal to the two changes.
Though the council approved the entire budget unanimously, they were split 3-2 on the amendment to include the chamber tax appropriation, which they have awarded every year since 1991.
The vote mirrors the division that has marked the town council since the Jan. 23 meeting when the chamber first requested a $7,000 tax exemption for their building located at 230 Old Tower Hill Road, Wakefield. Councilwomen Mary Eddy and Kathleen Fogarty have obstinately opposed the request, while Town Council President Ella Whaley, Vice President Carol Hagan McEntee and Councilman Jim Oâ€™Neill strongly support it. Two weeks ago, the chamber changed their application from an exemption to an appropriation of the same amount.
The quiet Monday night contrasts sharply with the disturbance at last Thursdayâ€™s budget meeting that resulted in a five-minute recess and police warning.
â€śA disruption of a public meeting is a violation of law,â€ť Police Chief Vincent Vespia ordered Thursday night. â€śIt is considered disorderly conduct for any individual to disrupt a public meeting. With that word of caution, I am going to ask everyone to act like ladies and gentlemen.â€ť
Those caught disrupting the meeting include Brendon Fogarty, chair of the Democratic town committee and husband of Councilwoman Kathleen Fogarty and resident Jonathan Daly Labelle, who called out that he was being harassed.
The incident occurred after Fogarty spoke in opposition to the chamber application. As Fogarty returned to his seat, he and Labelle exchanged words. Fogarty accused Labelle of heckling him, while Labelle claims Fogarty insulted him.
LaBelle said he is â€śthreatened when someone comes at me with anger and menace in his eyes.â€ť
The disruption lasted less than five minutes and does not rise to the level of a violation of disorderly conduct statue, Vespia stated.
â€śAs a result of my admonishment, there was no further incident,â€ť he added.
Emotions began to escalate after Fogarty and other opponents to the chamber appropriation spoke. These include member of the Democratic town committee Deborah Bergner and her husband CJ Bergner and Maureen Martin, Director of Political Activities for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. In March, Bergner filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission, citing â€śan appearance of improprietyâ€ť among Whaley, McEntee and Oâ€™Neill after they approved the tax exemption.
Earlier Fogarty questioned how a letter from the chamber dated March 7 appeared on the March 9 preliminary agenda. Town Council President Ella Whaley explained it came in time to meet the agenda and no special consideration was given. Despite this, Fogarty asked Town Manager Stephen Alfred a second time whether an item has ever been added late to the agenda before.
â€śI have no idea and I can also tell you itâ€™s been only one time that Iâ€™ve been out of the office because I had a death in the family. Brendon, this is inappropriate,â€ť Alfred said.
Fogartyâ€™s comments sparked anger in the town hall with Oâ€™Neill exclaiming, â€śSteve Alfred does it by the book. Thereâ€™s implication there.â€ť
â€śWhatâ€™s the rush?â€ť Fogarty asked. â€ś[The chamber] were able to get a letter by mistake because Mr. Alfred wasnâ€™t in. It was added and rushed through and now they speak tonight. The timing doesnâ€™t add up.â€ť
The conflict is not over yet. Martin and Bergner promise to get the 25 signatures required to petition the town council to remove the chamber tax appropriation by the April 23 deadline.
â€śMy tax money could be put to better use than supporting a group that can be self-supporting and has membership fees,â€ť Martin said. â€śI will petition this to be reconsidered. [People] will be signing on to this, Iâ€™m sure.â€ť