SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The town council meeting was caught in a stalemate Monday night as union leaders repeatedly asked for apologies from Councilman Jim O’Neill, who remained steadfast in his silent refusal to give into what they wanted.
“I spoke at the last town council meeting. I expect an apology for the way I was treated and comments I received from a certain town council member,” Deborah Bergner, resident and member of the Democratic Town Committee said. “I was using my right as a citizen and taxpayer and was treated poorly.”
O’Neill, however refused to apologize Monday night. Over the years, O’Neill and Bergner have had a history of butting heads.
“None is necessary. They started the battle. They wanted war. The implication was that there was impropriety. [Town Solicitor] Michael Ursillo said there was absolutely none,” O’Neill said in an interview after the council meeting.
The stoic behavior of the town council Monday night contrasted sharply with the Jan. 23 meeting, where tempers flared when a vote on whether to grant the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce a $7,000 tax exemption on its property at 230 Old Tower Hill Road turned political.
The council voted 3-2 to grant the exemption with President Ella Whaley, Vice President Carol Hagan McEntee and O’Neill advocating for the chamber to enter into a PILOT program based on the businesses’ various charitable contributions, while Councilwomen Kathleen Fogarty and Mary Eddy supported only allowing 501(c)3 nonprofits enter into PILOT programs.
However, during that January meeting, union leaders, including President of NEA-SK Christine Heid, NEARI attorney John Leidecker and Director of Political Activities for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Healthcare Professionals Maureen Martin, along with Bergner showed up in force against the chamber’s request for a tax exemption.
The point at which the suspected inflammatory remarks were cast occurred after Fogarty said the chamber made campaign contributions to McEntee and Whaley in 2010 worth $100. McEntee countered she supported the tax exemption because of what the chamber did for the community, not for their money. Fogarty also questioned whether McEntee and O’Neill as chamber members, could take a vote. McEntee is a lawyer at McEntee & McEntee Law Offices and O’Neill owns Coastal Properties, a real estate company.
“We understand the rule of politics. It’s cruel and ugly,” O’Neill said at the Jan. 23 meeting. “I always fall on the character of people up here. If I had to recuse myself I would. I’m embarrassed that any of you would accuse that any member would have to recuse themselves. These are foolish, stupid and dumb arguments.”
“That was a low blow. You are the most venomous poisonous human being to ever walk this earth,” O’Neill shouted in response to Fogarty after she pointed out chamber campaign contributions.
Bergner raised the issue of a conflict of interest again Monday, referring to the town code of ethics.
“This issue merits further investigation. I feel in this situation there is an appearance of impropriety,” Bergner said.
Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo, explained, however at both meetings that according to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, town council members could vote on items concerning organizations as long as they did not hold positions of leadership. According to a memo Ursillo wrote on Tuesday, Jan. 31, two advisory opinions from the Ethics Commission, including one from Narragansett, confirmed his advice.
“If any of you held a position of leadership with the chamber, I would advise there’d be a conflict of interest,” Ursillo said. “Being a member doesn’t bar you from participation.”
The controversy was compounded when O’Neill wrote a letter to the editor in the Friday, Jan. 27 issue of The Narragansett Times accosting the union leadership of political attacks, accusing Fogarty for organizing for the union leaders to attend the meeting and Bergner for receiving text messages from town Democratic Committee President, Brendon Fogarty, husband of Councilwoman Fogarty. O’Neill’s letter triggered response letters from Bergner and Martin, requesting an apology from O’Neill at Monday’s meeting.
In anticipation of the Martin and Bergner’s requests, Vice President Carol Hagan McEntee, who acted as chair while President Ella Whaley was absent due to a family medical emergency, stated all comments would be directed to her and not to any specific town council member or to any member of the public.
Meanwhile, McEntee was also the target of a request for an apology. At the Jan. 23 meeting, Martin described the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, a local branch of the United States Chamber of Commerce, an influential lobby group in Washington, DC., as also a lobby group with its own interests. McEntee pointed out why Martin questioned the lobbying potential of local chambers when she is a lobbyist herself.
“I feel like I was treated rudely by a town councilwoman who singled me personally. I wasn’t here for any job that I hold. I was here simply then and now as a South Kingstown taxpayer,” Martin said.
“I do ask questions from the table. I feel it is my obligation to get to the bottom of what the issues are when people come to the podium. I need clarification. I’m known to ask a lot of questions. If any offense was taken, it was not meant to be,” McEntee said. “I apologize for any insult that might have been taken.
While voices remained calm, innuendos sprinkled the discussion.
“NEA-RI represents 900 plus members in South Kingstown. I think it’s important that whoever made these comments should apologize,” Patrick Crowley of NEA-RI, the state organization of the local NEA-SK. “To let it linger would be a slap in the face to this individual and our union. Our motto is injury to one is injury to all.”
Crowley questioned how many people could fit into the council chambers and what the town would do if the 173 person capacity was exceeded at an upcoming meeting.
“Hopefully, apologies can be issued and we don’t have to get to that point,” Crowley said.
Fogarty and Eddy said they were embarrassed by the events that unfolded and gave what the union leaders sought, an apology.
“It really is something that is embarrassing to each member of the town council. I think we’ll have a discussion. Our president isn’t here today. I can guarantee you this won’t happen again,” Eddy said.
“It was embarrassing to me to be sitting up here. I’ll be the bigger thing even though I don’t personally owe you an apology,” Fogarty said.
The town council did agree to have town legal counsel review the tax exemption to determine if there is a nexus on how much charitable work must be done for an organization to enter into a PILOT agreement.