NARRAGANSETT – Dissatisfied with the town council’s inaction on a new library, a group of constituents recently rallied to include a voter recall provision in the town charter. A common mechanism used in cities and towns throughout the country, voter recall, as proposed in Narragansett, would allow voting residents of the town to recall an elected official with signatures from 25 percent of the electoral base from the previous election. In a split vote Monday night, the Narragansett Town Council approved the motion to put the question of including a voter recall mechanism in the town charter to the residents on the 2020 ballot.
Filed with the town’s clerk by resident and chair of the democratic town committee Win Hames on Feb. 15, the petition to include recall invokes voter initiative, a provision in the town charter that allows residents to enact or rescind town laws, regulations, ordinances and resolutions. The language also allows residents to amend the charter. Hames, who came in last place in the 2018 election, was acting on behalf of a group of constituents opposed to the current council’s refusal to move forward with a new town library in the pier after nearly 68 percent of voters approved a $5.8 million bond for such in 2016. A three-person majority on the current council consisting of council president Matthew Mannix, president pro-tem Jill Lawler and councilor Rick Lema have blocked the project from going forward with a string of split votes since the 2018 election. Accordingly, library project supporters have attended recent council meetings en masse, protesting the majority’s lack of movement on the issue. While approval of the voter recall ballot measure in 2020 would not affect any current elected official specifically, it would provide residents the right to enact such procedures in the future.
Hames’ proposal would allow voting residents to introduce a petition to recall a certain elected official within six months of the previous election. If 25 percent of the voting base from the prior election sign the petition, another election will be held. The petition organizer will have 60 days to gather the required signatures after the town clerk issues the requested petition forms. If the petition is completed with the required amount of signatures, it is submitted back to the town clerk, who will then pass it onto the town’s board of canvassers to determine its validity. The town council will then order an election to be held on a Tuesday of the council’s choice not more than 75 days after the board of canvassers’ approval. However, if any other town election is to occur within 120 days of the approval, the town would postpone the recall election until that date.
After Hames submitted the petition to include a voter recall mechanism on the 2020 ballot, the town solicitor, Mark Davis, was charged with determining the petition’s legality. Davis deemed Hames’ petition to be valid, which he affirmed Monday night, before the council ultimately voted 3-2 to approve placing the voter recall question on the ballot. While library-related votes have typically been split 3-2 amongst the current council, with the aforementioned majority usually prevailing, this vote marked a change in the form of Mannix siding with councilors Jesse Pugh and Patrick Murray, both library supporters, on the issue. While this motion was not library specific, its introduction stems from the controversy, and Mannix made clear he would not support it under normal circumstances. However, since the council was only tasked with determining if the petition filed by Hames violated state or federal law, and voting to either accept or reject the document accordingly, the town council president voiced his approval, with caveats.
“We have a two-year election cycle in the Town of Narragansett,” Mannix began. “Going to a recall in a two-year election cycle will essentially subject us to perpetual campaigns that a minority can put on, that’s the way this reads, it’s 25 percent. In a lot of places where recall might be appropriate there’s longer terms, such as four-year terms. This item comes from somebody who lost in the last election. Recall elections, for me, are something that’s going to lead to a minority of the voters to essentially have perpetual campaigns with low-turnout elections. I think that’s a problem. There was an aggressive campaign by the Friends of the Narragansett Library in 2018. There’s a lot of people in the town who don’t like those results. We’ve heard from them since the election – you’ve been coming out consistently to these meetings to share that point of view, but it doesn’t mean you can keep on doing elections. I think the initiative is bad policy and I’m going to urge Narragansett voters not to sign this.”
“But legally, there’s no obstacle to initiating a change to the charter to allow for recalls,” Mannix continued. “Recalls are permitted throughout cities and towns across the country. So I’m going to vote to accept this initiative despite its potentially horrible consequences.”
Mannix then called the motion to a vote, but was halted by Lawler, who said existing state law allowed voter recall at the town level should an elected official be convicted of a crime. Specifically, The Rhode Island Constitution Article 4 Section 1 mentions this provision:
“Recall is authorized in the case of a general officer who has been indicted or informed against for a felony, convicted of a misdemeanor, or against whom a finding of probable cause of violation of the code of ethics has been made by the ethics commission,” the state constitution reads. “Recall shall not, however be instituted at any time during the first six months or the last year of an individual’s term of office.”
Further, recall, as provided in the Rhode Island Constitution, would only require the signatures of 15 percent of the voter base from the previous election on a petition, as compared the town’s proposed 25 percent.
Lawler said the provision, if approved, would allow special interest groups to simply enact voter recall to change the results of any election they were not happy with. For these reasons, Lawler said she would not be supporting the motion.
Councilor Rick Lema was also opposed.
“This could continue on with someone getting elected and then a certain group of people could not want that person, and continue and continue,” he said. “What would this cost the town? People run for two-year terms, they get elected and then we’re going to roll them out, roll them out, roll them out, and spend all this money for what? I think it’s kind of crazy. I think people are just looking at an avenue to get people out of a position they were elected to because they don’t like what’s going on. This is a town, two years you’re in, you make decision and not all of your decisions will be in the direction people want, but that’s what they’re elected for. I’m definitely not voting for this.”
Pugh said the initiative was bi-partisan and reminded council members their votes should not be informed by their opinion of the topic itself, but only by whether or not the proposal violated state or federal law.
Hames offered what he called a “simple solution” to Mannix, Lawler and Lema’s objections.
“Simply do the will of the people,” he said. “And that way, you’ll never get recalled.”
The petition was ultimately accepted in a 3-2 vote.
The Narragansett Town Council also on Monday night rejected four other library-related petitions submitted to the town by both Hames and former town council president and library project supporter Susan Cicilline Buonanno.