NARRAGANSETT – The town council on Monday night approved the appointment of Douglas McLaughlin and Jeffrey Dentler to the Narragansett Library Board of Trustees, which has been embroiled in a clash against the council majority over a new public library project. Prior to the new appointments, the council rejected the reappointments of incumbent board of trustees members Gloria Roman and Ann Sullivan.
Council member Patrick Murray said it was curious that the town council was quick to entertain the motion to appoint/reappoint individuals to the library board when their terms had expired only recently, but the council had also just taken up, in the previous motion, appointing/reappointing members to the town’s Galilee Advisory Board whose terms had expired in 2019.
“I smell the political football again,” said Murray, in reference to the vote coming so close to the General Election on Nov. 3.
“We’ve gone through all of the reappointments,” said town council president Matthew Mannix in response. “There are some we weren’t ready to put on that have expired because we haven’t heard from the members if they wanted to be reappointed or not. These were the ones that were ready. The Galilee Advisory Committee hasn’t met in several months so there’s no urgency.”
The town council is currently divided between a minority consisting of Murray and councilor Jesse Pugh and a majority of Mannix, council president pro tem Jill Lawler and councilor Richard Lema on the topic of a new town library. In 2016, nearly 68 percent of Narragansett voters approved a $5.8 million bond for a new library, and the previous town council purchased property in the Pier Marketplace for $2.8 million to serve as a home for the new facility. The vote to purchase the space was approved in the final meeting before the 2018 election, after which, the new council majority was elected, which opposed the project in the Pier for fiscal and logistical concerns. Since, residents and members of the library board have sued the town due to numerous votes by the majority to sell the property proposed for the project and reduce the library board’s budget by more than half in back-to-back years in 2019 and 2020.
As the General Election looms, the library project has become a staple issue as residents look to choose a new town council. Further, there are many referenda on this year’s Narragansett ballot that address the future of the project. Pugh noted the current members of the board should be reappointed to see the project through and the outcome of the 2020 election.
On Monday night, numerous members of the library board of trustees commented that they would support the reappointment of members Roman, Sullivan and Gail Shields, who were up for consideration, along with members of the public also voicing support. Resident and member of the library board Karen Shabshelowitz said she agreed with Murray and Pugh that the vote should be delayed and entertaining the motion was a “political tactic.”
“I agree this should be tabled until after the election,” said Laurie Kelly, chair of the library board of trustees and a candidate for council this year. “Failing that, I strongly support the expertise of [the current members] to be reappointed to this institution that they have served so well over the past years.”
“These people have served as active members of the board,” she continued. “They have also done considerable community outreach and dedicated time and money for the staff and patrons during COVID. Many of these members were in the library actually scanning books.”
“I think it’s time for some new people on the board,” said resident Paul Zonfrillo. “They’ve served and we appreciate that in our community. But there’s been a lot of what I would call ‘groupthink’ around the library, and some people with new perspectives and new ways of looking at things are sorely needed.”
Pugh motioned to reappoint incumbent members Shields and Sullivan, though the proposal was shot down in 3-2 votes along council majority-minority lines. When applicants McLaughlin and Dentler were motioned for appointment, Murray, in a loudly raised voice, attacked the council majority over the issue that has dominated local politics for the past term.
“You people have put a wedge in this community on so many issues,” he said. “This is like your last gasp to shut this whole library board down, to shut down what the people voted for 2016. I’m so sick and tired of it.”
“Give me a goddamn break,” Murray added. “I have no words.”
Many members of the public asked that McLaughlin, a former member of the Narragansett Town Council, and Dentler’s library experience or expertise be explained, while the council continued the calls for “fresh blood” within the group.
Ultimately, McLaughlin and Dentler were appointed among majority-minority lines. The council then unanimously voted to make the third and final appointment to the board of trustees at the next council meeting.