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OPINION: Time for Council Challengers to Make a Choice

It may not sit well with those who wished to seek office this year, but barring a court action, there will be no 2018 City Council election. Voters will go to the polls to choose who will lead the city's executive branch, the first "strong" Mayor. But the legislative branch will continue and bring needed consistency and institutional knowledge as we transition our form of government.

The City Council will play a different but still vital and powerful role in our city. Those that think the Mayor will be an elected dictator and completely run government, sans the City Council passing a budget, are mistaken. Our City Council will be a co-equal branch of government, similar to the Governor and General Assembly and the President and Congress. The Council will simply no longer choose and oversee the chief administrator, we the voters will do that instead.

I have been vocal in my support for the current City Council putting in place the four year terms that were approved by the voters and then ignored by the previous two City Councils in part on the political (masked as legal) advice of the then Solicitor Timothy Chapman. I will not recount the entire fiasco as it has been well reported here and on other venues.

What I would like to discuss instead is what happens now. According to Mr. Craven, one of the city's attorneys, who is well versed in election law as former counsel to the Board of Elections, the four year terms have been codified in our city charter and are now law in the City of East Providence. He has also made it clear that the terms apply to the current members of the City Council.

Some have mentioned the ludicrous notion of reseating the previous council members to serve out their remaining term. That idea is as logistically incomprehensible as it is legal folly. Our City Charter expressly states the following: "

"The council shall have five [5] members, one to be elected from any by the electors of each of the four [4] wards of the city, and one to be elected at large, for a term of four (4) years or until a majority of the newly elected council have qualified and have taken office."

The phrase makes clear that once a new Council has taken office, the prior Council's term has expired, even if the number of years has not been met. When the 2014 Council allowed for an election, a certification and an inauguration of the new members, they voided their remaining two years.

More to the core of law is a doctrine called 'laches' which asserts that one can lose their rights by failing to timely assert them or as the Supreme Court puts it "unreasonable delay pursuing a right or claim, in a way that prejudices the opposing party". It is an extension of the doctrine of equity, the maxim of which is "Vigilantibus non dormientibus √¶quitas subvenit (Equity aids the vigilant, not the sleeping ones)." The 2014 City Council was clearly asleep on this issue.

So it is clear to anyone who follows the legal movement of this issue that the East Providence ballot in 2018 will consist of the Mayor and School Committee, as well as whatever local referenda that may be placed for a vote. There will be no vote for the City Council. Those who assert that an election ballot with an incorrect term listed can somehow override the governing City Charter, recognized by the Rhode Island Constitution as the supreme law of the city is an assertion not supported by statute or judicial precedent.

The question remains, why are there still active campaigns for Council races? Are these candidates planning to disregard our City Charter? Are they planning a legal case to try and fight this decision as some have suggested online? It seems unfair to the voters to 'play' like there will be a Council election this November, to continue to fundraise for a campaign without relevance. If one or more of the candidates are going to file suit to attempt to force an election, they should do so now, or at the very least make their intentions clear so that people know.

Pretending like the four year terms did not happen, as many past political players also tried to do will get them nowhere. The people will not accept ignoring our City Charter anymore, nor the will of the people expressed in the 2012 referendum for four year terms.

Every challenger for a City Council seat should make clear that they are either winding down their campaigns or that they are pursuing a legal challenge, do not hide your intentions from the public which you claim to wish to serve. There will always be 2020, but how the candidates behave today may very well set the tone should they wish to try again during the next true City Council election.

Further reading on this issue:
Four Year Terms Followup: Should They Stay or Should They Go
Four Year Terms Followup: "There was a conspiracy to kill this at the outset!"