Welcome to Rhode Island government in the era of COVID-19.
Even as Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has implemented martial law lite for residents and directed the police to stop out-of-state cars, she has unilaterally made it easier for government to operate in secretive ways. In Tiverton, the Town Council leadership — President Patricia Hilton and Vice President Denise deMedeiros — are taking full advantage of the increased ability to abuse the public trust.
For weeks, Town Administrator Jan Reitsma has been on a mysterious leave, although Hilton and deMedeiros have hidden information about the circumstances in closed-door executive sessions (perhaps because they were actively trying to force him out of the job). During Reitsma’s absence, Town Clerk Nancy Mello has been acting administrator, even though she never received the advisory opinion from the state Ethics Commission required to supervise a family member.
Now, with people distracted by the coronavirus and the public unable to be present at meetings, Hilton and deMedeiros have moved to install a new “interim” administrator in an incredibly non-transparent process.
At a special meeting on March 17, Hilton asserted that Reitsma, while out on leave, had said he would like to retire. As of this writing, the public has no documentation of this decision and no explanation. At a regular meeting on Monday, March 23, the council decided to put a small ad on the town’s website giving interested candidates until that Friday to apply. Hilton and Mello clearly had somebody in mind already.
At around 4:00 p.m. on Friday, March 27, the clerk privately sent the council members the list of people who had applied. And at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, the council met online — in closed executive session, of course — to discuss the applicants. Immediately afterwards, they started an online stream of their meeting for the public on YouTube (with comments turned off) and — with no interest in scheduling an interview — told the public who the new administrator would be and how much he would be paid.
The “candidate” was Chris Cotta, a former resident who now lives in Little Compton. In 2008, Cotta and deMedeiros, who was the chairwoman of the school committee, were key players in a trick maneuver that forced a re-do of a financial town meeting vote and allowed the town to grab an 11% tax increase. This became known around town as the “Stolen FTM.”
In 2012, the people of Tiverton responded to a decade of these high tax increases by voting to amend our Home Rule Charter to switch to a private referendum. Charter changes require approval by the General Assembly, and Chris Cotta took that opportunity to ask legislators to thwart the will of the people again. Fortunately, the General Assembly didn’t allow Cotta to steal another vote, and taxes began to stabilize. (He has publicly insisted that he did no such thing, but the audio recording of the hearing doesn’t lie.)
In the years since, Cotta has been one of the most aggressive voices in town, even after he moved out. This past autumn, for example, he used social media to spread the slander that the then–council president lived in Newport and was holding office illegally.
No wonder Hilton, deMedeiros, and Mello didn’t want to give the people of Tiverton so much as a week… a day… an hour to consider whom they had in mind for this critical position and to offer feedback to our elected officials. It had to be a done deal before anybody could think about it.
Even in strange times, it seems nothing changes: a man whose public life in Tiverton was characterized by his distrust of the public and his desire to find ways to undermine voters was appointed to a mysterious vacancy in a completely non-transparent process at a time when transparency and the public’s rights are limited because of a crisis and by a council that came to power after a politically motivated recall election.
Let’s hope Rhode Islanders come to our senses when we’re able to go back to ordinary life and don’t allow this sort of abuse to become our new normal.
Featured image: a screen capture from the May 16, 2007, Tiverton financial town meeting, with Budget Committee Chairman Chris Cotta to the right of the podium and School Committee Chairwoman Denise deMedeiros to the left.