While other communities are trying to work with the state to figure out how to handle local elections in a time of restricted mobility and assembly, Tiverton Town Council President Patricia Hilton has found a more-efficient way: She’s simply decided that she has unlimited power to issue executive orders and change the way government operates, all by herself, without consulting or even telling the rest of the council:
Over the weekend, she led the council in a completely non-transparent appointment of a political ally as an interim town administrator, with the public having almost no information about the status of the actual administrator. Now she has issued a surprise executive order moving the date of the town’s financial town referendum (FTR) to June 20.
Moving the FTR may or may not be a good idea, but citizens in a republic have to insist that the right process is followed and their rights are respected. In this case, Hilton drafted and signed an executive order, which is (at the very least) of debatable legality, without letting other council members know it was in the works, despite their online meeting just three days ago.
Making the illegality of the order even more curious is the fact that the town’s recently appointed solicitor is Michael Marcello, who was a representative of District 41 (Scituate, Cranston) in the Rhode Island House in 2010. That year, the General Assembly passed a special law permitting municipalities to postpone their budget decisions, including financial town meetings, for up to 90 days for that one year only. Marcello voted for the legislation, so he should know that cities and towns lack the authority to do so on their own.
Readers can refer to the quoted article above for Hilton’s legal reasoning, but it is wrong on its face. Tiverton’s budget process is written into the town’s Home Rule Charter, and in Rhode Island, cities and towns’ charters play the role of local constitutions written into state law. Declaring an emergency does not give a local government the power to modify state law on its own. Indeed, changing constitutions unilaterally is the essence of dictatorship.
Hilton put an exclamation point on her action by doing it in such a gratuitously unilateral action. She issued her proclamation with no notice to the rest of the council (even though they met as a body on Saturday), no consultation with the School Committee, no consultation with the town’s Budget Committee, and no chance for public review or comment. Her action was entirely unnecessary, because the town has nearly two months until its scheduled budget referendum and other local and state officials would surely have worked with the Town Council to figure something out. Add in the fact that the governor has permitted government bodies to meeting remotely during this crisis.
Of course, those who’ve watched Patricia Hilton in Tiverton, Rhode Island, know that this is how she operates. In ordinary times, she has always manipulated process, instructed town employees with no authority, and leveraged town solicitors to undermine the rights of others. The global pandemic just has just given her the opportunity to throw off restraints.
It is unfortunate that so many people who ought to know better are shrugging at this power grab and inviting her to go even farther next time.