NARRAGANSETT – Voter turnout in the annual Bonnet Shores Fire District (BSFD) election more than doubled after a nearby beach club sent out a political mailer to members endorsing certain candidates. The fire district is currently the defendant in an ongoing lawsuit from a group of residents challenging the eligibility requirements to vote within the fire district.
“It’s critical that you attend the Fire District Annual Meeting so that you can vote for the candidates whom we are supporting,” reads the mailer from Bonnet Shores Beach Club, which was emailed to “fellow Bonnet Shores Beach Club Condominium Association Owners.”
“Without your participation, we can’t guarantee that the Beach Club will continue as you know it because there are many residents in the Fire District who do not view the Beach Club favorably. It has never been our intention to get involved in Fire District politics, but this group of residents has drawn us into it.”
A semi-autonomous neighborhood, BSFD, created by charter and approved by the RI General Assembly (RIGA) in 1932, includes all property lying between the easterly line of Boston Neck Road and Narragansett Bay, according to its charter, from the current Bonnet Liquors to Nardolillo Funeral Home. BSFD is part of Narragansett, but has the ability to elect its own council, clerk, tax assessors and collectors and fire and police personnel and draft its own ordinances and budget.
Residents of the fire district pay taxes to both the BSFD and the Town of Narragansett, and the fire district has received grant funding from the state as a quasi-municipality.
In 2019, a group of residents sued the district, arguing that its voting laws were unconstitutional, specifically challenging a provision within the district’s charter that in order to be eligible to vote, one must own at least $400 worth of property within the district. Under this requirement, those who rent within the neighborhood, have properties in a trust, are adult children of parents whose names still appear on the property deed and spouses, may not be able to vote in the district’s local elections.
BSFD is also home to the Bonnet Shores Beach Club (BSBC) at 175 Bonnet Point Road. Here, non-residents can purchase beach cabanas, some very small in size, which some have described as “closets” or “bathrooms,” and, under the BSFD Charter, legally vote in BSFD elections while full-time residents of the district who do not meet the $400 property ownership requirement are denied. The district’s Charter does not specify if the condition to vote pertains to residential real estate, meaning commercial property, such as the condominiums at the beach club, are valid property under the district’s voting law.
The lawsuit takes aim at this practice, seeking to one, eliminate the property ownership clause from the charter on the basis of it being unconstitutional and two, exclude beach club members who own only property at the beach club from voting in local elections.
The Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union recently joined the case in support of the plaintiffs.
“I’ve been a resident here, 12 months a year, for 43 years,” said Anita Langer, a former BSFD Councilmember who ran but was not re-elected this year. “This is my home, my community. We love our community. They’re trying to take it away and they only come here for three months a year.”
“Hundreds of people who do not live in Bonnet showed up at the annual meeting and voted for the people that the private commercial beach club told them to vote for,” said Melissa Jenkins, a fire district resident and plaintiff in the lawsuit against BSFD. “That’s what happened. Bonnet residents rallied, but there’s only so much you can do when your own council is seeding the nominations and running the meeting, allowing nonresidents to vote and carry in proxies for the many people on their beach closet deeds. We knew this would happen.”
“Commercial property owners regularly pay taxes to cover basic services in the community where they run their business, but this does not convey the right to vote,” Jenkins continued. “Voting rights are governed by state law which supersedes bylaws. It is simply not legal for businesses to vote in a community in which they do not live. Think about it. They are always going to vote to enhance their own profits. Nothing against the beach club, it’s a fine business, but it’s a business.”
In 2018, BSFD was awarded a $200,000 grant from the state’s department of environmental management to dredge a local pond in an effort to prevent or eliminate road and property flooding and the overall health of the pond. Many saw the grant as benefiting the beach club only, and the fire district said it had worked closely with the private company in formulating its application for the grant.
The election, held Thursday, June 24, saw the fire district hand out 698 ballots. By comparison, in 2019, only 219 ballots were requested. In 2018, 316 ballots were requested. There was no annual election in 2020 due to the pandemic.
In response to the Beach Club mailer, Concerned Citizens of Bonnet (CCB), a resident group, also contacted membership prior to the BSFD election, asking "why is the beach club trying to hijack our fire district election?" The CCB mailer also endorsed council candidates for office.
The new Bonnet Shores Fire District Council will consist of five members - Anthony DeAngelis, Bill Delgizzo, Carolyn DiLeo, Steve Danuszar and Bob Anderson. Danuszar and Anderson were endorsed by the BSBC mailer two days prior to the election. Delgizzo and DiLeo, meanwhile, received CCB's support. DeAngelis was endorsed by both parties.
Langer finished in sixth place by 48 votes. The beach club also encouraged its membership to write in Bonnet Shores Beach Club General Manager Michael Rennell for a spot on the council, though Rennell did not receive enough votes to finish in the top eight candidates.
Rennell also denied comment for this article when asked about the mailer.
Further, three out of the four elected positions for the Bonnet Shores Fire District Land Trust went to beach club-endorsed candidates at the election June 24. Candidates endorsed by the beach club were also elected to the positions of moderator, treasurer and clerk for the district.
The turnout June 24 was large, with multiple traffic directors, extended parking options, police presence and long lines to cast ballots. Attorney for BSFD Thomas M. Dickinson has reportedly stated the fire district is not a government entity, but “more akin to a condominium association or neighborhood association,” according to The Boston Globe. When asked on the night of the election if he still maintained that position, Dickinson declined comment.