NARRAGANSETT – Accusations flew at Monday’s town council meeting, with councilor Jesse Pugh accusing council president Matthew Mannix of deceptively amending restrictions of a recently renewed liquor license.
After the intense debate from council members, which saw the town solicitor tell Pugh he was “100 percent wrong,” Mannix, in a move that breaks the town council’s rules and regulations, refused to acknowledge members of the public wishing to speak on the matter. Ultimately, the council in a split vote rejected a motion to unseal executive session meeting minutes that allegedly discussed the liquor license amendment.
On the last motion of the council meeting’s agenda, councilor Pugh, a progressive Democrat and also the council’s top vote getter in the 2018 election, took a few moments to lay out a case of potential improper conduct by Mannix at the council’s Nov. 18, 2019 meeting at which many liquor licenses for businesses across town were approved, including that of Pier Liquors, which is located at 29 Pier Market Place. Pugh said Mannix’s on-the-floor amendment during the discussion of the renewal of Pier Liquors’ alcoholic beverage license was done in a deceptive manner. The amended license would allow the business to transfer the liquor license to a new owner.
“Councilor Mannix made an on-the-floor amendment to the liquor license renewal for Pier Liquors,” said Pugh Monday, referring to the Nov. 18 meeting. “What that means is there was no attached, written amendment, no notification that this would be happening. Nobody, that I’m aware of, on town staff knew this would be happening.”
For context, the council is deeply divided over a new public library project. When the electorate approved a $5.8 million bond for a new library in 2016, the previous council two years later in a split vote approved the $2.8 million purchase of the 18,500-square-foot former Belmont Marketplace building in the Pier Marketplace to serve as the library’s new home. The current 9,000-square-foot Maury Loontjens Memorial Library on Kingstown Road is too cramped for library operations and is out of compliance with both ADA and fire code. However, the 2018 election saw a council majority elected that opposed the new library project in the former Belmont building on a fiscal basis, citing issues with the deal approved by the previous council. Due to the majority’s hard stopping of the project throughout 2019, a resident coalition filed suit against the council in Washington County Superior Court in September. Pugh and councilor Patrick Murray have continuously advocated for the new library project, constantly resisting the will of the majority that is comprised of Mannix, council president pro tem Jill Lawler and councilor Richard Lema, efforts that include selling the building the new library was slated for. Pier Liquors last year entered closed-door negotiations with the town council in executive sessions, and eventually worked out a deal in September that saw the business purchase the second floor of the former Belmont space for $735,000. The resident coalition-filed lawsuit, submitted after that purchase, names the business as a defendant.
“My understanding, since I was not on the council when this license was originally created, was that those restrictions were put in place to ensure that liquor store stayed in place at the Pier Marketplace to go along with the Belmont Market, and also to really block any chance of getting that license and then just flipping it,” said Pugh Monday.
“My opinion is that [Mannix’s amendment] was done in a deceptive manner, to have this change fly under the radar,” he added.
On Nov. 18, 2019, during a motion that would renew most of the active liquor licenses in town for a one-year period, Mannix, as he has done in the past, read off each business vying for a license renewal and paused after coming to Pier Liquors.
“On this one I’m going to be seeking an amendment,” said Mannix at that meeting.
The town council president then put forth a change that would remove one of the two existing restrictions on Pier Liquors’ Class-A alcoholic beverage license: Mannix’s amendment would keep the restriction preventing the license from being transferred to another location, but would remove the language blocking the license from being transferred to another owner. According to town clerk Theresa Donovan, every other liquor store in town is currently able to transfer its liquor license to a new purchaser. The original specifications for Pier Liquors’ license were different due to the business being located in the Pier Marketplace, a center of Narragansett’s urban renewal district, according to town officials.
After a quick invitation to open up a discussion at the Nov. 18 meeting, Mannix then moved to a vote on the amendment, which was approved 4-1, with Pugh the only dissenting council member. Pugh and Murray briefly conferred, appearing confused, after the vote.
“What happened is this license can now be sold with the business,” said Pugh at Monday’s meeting. “The big question is where did it come from and why was this amendment made on the floor?”
Councilor Pugh then inquired as to the origin of the amendment, and stated Mannix told him the intent came from executive sessions.
“My question is which session?” said Pugh. “I have no recollection of this. Councilor Murray has no recollection of this.”
Pugh said he asked Donovan, who is required to keep general, non-verbatim minutes of executive sessions, to provide the meetings at which the contents of the amendment were discussed behind closed doors. Donovan submitted to Pugh minutes from the council’s March 4, 2019, April 1, 2019, April 8, 2019 and May 6, 2019 executive sessions. The discussion Monday stemmed from Pugh’s motion to unseal the minutes of those meetings.
“My opinion is that we never discussed this,” he said. “A lot of people in town that I’ve spoken to don’t know where this came from. One way to clear this up is to unseal those minutes, show when we talked about this, have complete transparency so everyone understands why this restriction was removed, who requested it, and where this came from. I have no information, written or oral, from Pier Liquors requesting this specific [component of the license] be removed from the license.”
Pugh said the occurrence presented two scenarios–the amendment was never discussed in executive session or it was, but was never advertised correctly. In order to convene executive sessions legally, public bodies must provide the specific reasoning for entering the session to the public at an open meeting. Over the past year, the Narragansett Town Council has convened many executive sessions for a number of reasons, including to discuss real estate transactions, but never to discuss specific provisions of a liquor license.
“Removing a restriction of a liquor license that allows the licensee to sell the business is not real estate,” said Pugh, referencing the council’s earlier justification for entering into the executive sessions. “That’s a liquor license, the item [to enter executive session] should have read ‘liquor license.’”
It should be noted that amendments made on the floor, not just by the town council president, which are then approved by council vote, are commonplace by the Narragansett Town Council. Also, the council was recently found to be in violation of the state’s open meetings act for discussing specific terms of a new town manager contract during executive session, discussions that should have taken place during open meetings, according to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office.
“One scenario is that this amendment was never discussed by the full council, that’s my contention,” said Pugh. “The second scenario is this amendment was discussed in executive session improperly since it was never put on the [public] agenda, which would be a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act.”
Town solicitor Mark Davis said any communications, including letters of intent, he received from attorneys representing Pier Liquors during the deal were then presented to the council during executive sessions. Council president pro tem Jill Lawler asked Davis if any potential amendments to the business’s liquor license were put forward in the letters of intent.
“That was absolutely in the initial letter of intent and was part of every subsequent offer,” said Davis.
After Pugh detailed that he had submitted a motion a few months ago that would require the recording of all executive sessions, Mannix said Pugh and Murray did not pay attention during the closed meetings.
“We discussed this in executive session,” said Mannix, referring to the liquor license restriction, before addressing Pugh and Murray. “You two are one-note candidates, one-note performers. You don’t listen to the whole conversation that takes place. This was discussed at length, this was something that was put forward as one of [Pier Liquors’] requests. We could not put it in the purchase and sale agreement because it was an inappropriate term for a purchase and sale agreement. The only time that we could put it forward as a change was when we were amending the liquor licenses.”
“But I’ve been in these executive sessions with you,” Mannix continued. “I’ve seen you’re not engaged. They’ve started their election-year campaign, they want us out of office. So I’m going to be very clear for those watching at home. This is what you’re going to get. You’re going to get this ‘gotcha’ politics, accusations that are not true, because I remember vividly the discussions about this.”
Mannix also said that until the closing of the deal between the town and Pier Liquors, the discussion at hand was inappropriate. Pugh again questioned why the amendment was made on the floor. Mannix said he wished he had prepared the amendment in writing. Lawler mentioned the original motion to renew the licenses came from Donovan, not Mannix.
“Matt, I actually agree with you,” prefaced Murray. “It may or may not have been discussed, I don’t remember. And I also agree with Jill. What’s the sense of having an executive session if you’re going to unseal the minutes?”
“But,” Murray continued, “under this council, and the administration of this town over the last year or so, it demands the release of these minutes to avoid another lawsuit.”
Pugh said it was his opinion that the council did not receive any letters of intent from Pier Liquors requesting the specific liquor license amendment ultimately put forward by Mannix on Nov. 18. .
“You’re 100 percent wrong,” said Davis. “Not only did it happen once, it happened several times. There were many letters of intent and it was handed out to everyone, it wasn’t just discussed. It’s flat out wrong. I’m happy to show it to you. You should have it.”
Murray said the question was now if the purchase of the upper level of the Belmont building by Pier Liquors was contingent upon the town’s amending of the business’s liquor license. Mannix corrected Murray that the approved amendment did not allow Pier Liquors to transfer its liquor license to another location, just another owner.
“Again, this is totally inappropriate,” said Mannix. “It’s a series of offer letters. You say you care about Pier Liquors. Do you know the legal fees they’re probably paying on this? You’re supposed to be for small business but that’s a joke.”
“But if the library went through, Pier Liquors was going to stay,” replied Murray. “They have legal problems because of your mismanagement of the town.”
After some more back and forth, Mannix put the motion to a council vote and refused to recognize multiple audience members wishing to speak on the motion. According to the town council’s rules and regulations, which Mannix approved as a council member in 2012, any audience member wishing to speak on a motion on the meeting’s agenda will be heard.
“These are items which the council will discuss individually in the order listed on the agenda,” reads the council’s rules and regulations under the “motions on agenda” category. “After the council has discussed an item on the agenda, the council president will close the council discussion and will inquire if any citizen wishes to be heard on the matter.”
Mannix has refused to recognize members of the public who desire to speak on a motion in the past. In May, during a contentious split council vote that reduced more than half of the town’s annual allocation to the library board, Mannix did not acknowledge audience members wishing to speak on the motion, despite loud, continuous protest from those wishing to be heard. However, when Lawler proposed a motion in October that would establish behavioral guidelines at town meetings, which many interpreted as an attack on free speech, Mannix voted against his council ally, and the motion was defeated 3-1 with one abstention (Lema). On Monday, it was Lawler who told Mannix to let the public speak, but Mannix did not heed.
Immediately after Pugh’s motion to unseal the executive session meeting minutes was defeated in a 2-2-1 vote (Pugh and Murray in favor, Mannix and Lawler opposed and Lema abstaining), Mannix went to the public for the public comment portion of the meeting, which has been moved to the end of council gatherings since the beginning of last year.
“It does seem that there’s something there,” said resident Mary Nadeau regarding the liquor license amendment. “‘If you buy our building, then we’ll give you the change to your liquor license.’ We should have been able to have public comment on this item. I definitely agree with Jesse, thank you for trying to unseal the records, and it does seem like quid pro quo. It seems we’re having an issue that there was an understanding of ‘if you do this for me, I’ll give you that [liquor license amendment].’”
The letters of intent from Pier Liquors to the council are not public documents at this time, as the town is still negotiating condo fees with the business, according to Davis. The Narragansett Times has contacted the owners of Pier Liquors multiple times throughout the process seeking comment, but has yet to receive a response.