Skip to main content

LETTER: Dr. Alan D’Aiello: Current Council Has Two Year Mandate

One of the greatest privileges and responsibilities we have in a representative democracy is the right to vote for those who represent us.  Great pains are taken to make sure that the electoral ballot is fair and that voters have the right to determine their representatives, as well as determine the length of time they are to be in office.   

However, there is now a proposal afoot in the East Providence City Council which, if allowed to transpire, would turn this last principle on its head in the name of “procedural error.”  In its fervor to right a previous ballot controversy around the validity of a 2012 City Charter Amendment initiative to change the Council’s term in office from 2 to 4 years, the current Council is prepared to create a far graver crisis: that of democratic illegitimacy.   

In order to get to the bottom of the issue, we must start in 2012 when the East Providence electorate voted to alter the City Charter to have both the City Council and School Committee sit for 4 year terms. The wording of the amendment stated that it would take effect with no further action needed if approved. However, legal counsel at the time advised that any amendment to the City Charter would have to be ratified by the RI Legislature. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, the Legislature never ratified this amendment. Since 2012, there has been a vocal group of citizens devoted to getting to the bottom of this issue, and with a change in the makeup of the City Council now the issue is being acted on. I firmly agree and commend those active citizens for not letting this issue go. I would further add that the actions of both the then-city solicitor, our EP legislators, and our past Council members must be investigated because there is (circumstantial) evidence that our State representation at the time was ignoring the will of the people in how they handled the Charter Amendment and that this action is completely at odds with their duties to our City. 

Until last week then, the assumption was that the Charter Amendment was not in force until the 

Legislature acted to ratify it, and the Legislature has made no moves since 2012 to act on it, and the City Council had made no moves to further address it.  There have been 2 subsequent elections for both City Council and School Committee operating on the original Charter wording, and each ballot has stated clearly that the terms of office for both would be 2 years.    

However, the current City Council has now received different legal advice that turns the previous legal opinion on its head: according to the Assistant City Solicitor, the Charter was effectively amended as of 2012 and that there was never a need to get Legislature approval. Thus, the election in 2014 should have been for a 4 year Council and School Committee. This did not happen. There was a further election for both bodies in 2016. This ballot again said that the Council and Committee would be elected for a 2 year term expiring this upcoming November. In a further addition, the Assistant City Solicitor has stated that there is no need, with the Charter Amendment now in effect, to hold an election in 2018 and that the current Councilors should simply stay in office until November of 2020. 

This is thus the crux of the controversy: should the City Council hold new election this November for a 4 year term up in November of 2022, or should it simply extent its current term for 2 more years until 2020, reflecting the wording of the Charter Amendment?   

To me, and to those who believe in the integrity of the ballot, there is no question: I firmly believe that any extension of this seated City Council would be a complete insult to the idea of a representative democracy and a fair and free ballot.  When I voted in 2016, I voted for my councilor to have a 2 year term and fully expected to reelect them this November.  The 2016 ballot that was approved by the City 

Canvassing Office and by the RI Department of Elections stated 2 years, and at the time all of the Councilors were running for 2 year terms.  As far as the East Providence electorate knew, we were voting for our City Council to sit for 2 years.  Thus, I ask: how can a 2-year ballot confer democratic legitimacy for 4 years? It cannot

Some of the supporters of the Council’s current position have claimed that their rights were impinged by the Charter Amendment process being ignored by both our delegation to the RI Legislature as well as the two previous Councils in 2012 & 2014.  I am very sympathetic and agreeable to their claims.  Their rights most likely were abrogated and ignored.  This in itself is a travesty in a representational democracy.  I want an investigation as to how this occurred, and some sort of redress if it is discovered that something unethical or even illegal took place. 

Nevertheless, to simply extend the Council terms as a solution to the controversy, rather than holding a new ballot in November is erroneous on two levels.  First, as I stated above, the ballot read that the terms of office were for two years.  Thus, any democratic mandate that the council has will expire 2 years after their inauguration.  The wording on the ballot must mean something for the election to be fair. After all, how can a voter give democratic consent to an office holder for 2 years but then be told later that the ballot was incorrect due to a “procedural error” and that really, the term was for 4 years?  This leads to my second point: if the ballot in 2016 was wrong due to a “procedural error”, how can the Council argue on one hand that they were democratically elected ( by implying that part of the ballot was “procedurally correct”) and on the other that because the ballot was in “procedural error” that they can extend their terms?   

The ballot is either valid, or it is not; the Council cannot have it both ways.  If the ballot is valid, they must step aside in November for a new election to a 4-year term.  If it is invalid due to “procedural error” they should immediately stand aside and hold an emergency election in either May or June to a 4 year term as clearly the 2016 ballot was fundamentally flawed and they cannot know if they have the vote of the people.  Any other response by the Council would be just as bad as the chicanery that went on around the Charter Amendment in the first place, and would lack any democratic legitimacy. 

I want to make it clear that my argument is not based on the composition of this Council.  I am not part of any City group, committee, “cabal” or “faction.”    I am very satisfied with my current Councilor and planned on voting for them again in November.  Up until last week, I was quite happy with the actions the City Council has taken.  My disappointment and anger at this move stems from a deep belief in democratic legitimacy, the integrity of the ballot, and the old adage that “two wrongs don’t make a right.”   

I firmly hope that the Council can step back from this track before the City becomes mired in lawsuits that will undoubtedly arise from their actions. 

Dr. Alan D’Aiello

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect The Independent Townie's editorial policy.