WESTERLY — Town Council Vice President Mario Celico is defending his right to shut down certain comments from citizens at Town Council meetings despite receiving a new reprimand from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a Dec. 26 letter, Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s Providence office, wrote to Celico to “request the council be more mindful at its future meetings of its First Amendment obligations to accept even critical public comment.” It is the second such letter Brown has sent to the town within about 15 months.
Both letters stem from complaints filed with the ACLU by Robert Lombardo, a frequent critic of town government who pratices law on High Street. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, among other things, protections for free speech, freedom of the press and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances.
Brown’s recent letter pertains to the Town Council’s Nov. 6 meeting, when Celico had Lombardo removed from the podium in Council Chambers at Town Hall during the citizens’ comments section of the meeting after Lombardo criticized members of the council and Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy and raised questions about the qualifications of Human Resources Director Joshua Putman, Director of Development Services Lisa Pellegrini, and former Finance Director Deb Bridgham.
Lombardo also came close to discussing the performance review of another, unnamed town employee.
At times Lombardo referred to the town officials and councilors as buffoons and fools, and he accused Celico of not following council rules. He also poked fun at one councilor’s speaking voice.
Dylan Conley, who was serving as the council’s lawyer during the Nov. 6 meeting, told the council “if public comment starts to move in a manner that is not going to allow the council to fulfill its duties and perform its business well, the council is under no obligation to allow that comment to continue.”
Conley went on to say that the council was not required to listen to “personal attacks that don’t have anything to do with the performance of the council.”
He also said that Lombardo should be prevented from discussing the employee’s performance evaluation because the town was required to inform the employee ahead of time of an intent to discuss him.
Conley is the son of William Conley Jr., who normally serves as the council’s lawyer. Dylan and William Conley did not respond to a message seeking comment for this article.
During the meeting, Lombardo argued against the younger Conley’s advice and questioned his level of experience as a lawyer, but Celico said “Three years, 30 years, it doesn’t matter. He’s our solicitor and we’re going to take his advice.”
Brown, in his letter to Celico, dismissed Conley’s directive to the council, saying it relied on a law that did not apply to the situation. Brown noted that the requirement to inform an employee of a public body’s intent to discuss them is required under the state Open Meetings Act and pertains to a “public body’s own discussion of personnel, not those involving public comment. As my letter noted last year, surely no one would argue that a Westerly resident could not speak at a council meeting to praise a police officer for his work in apprehending a criminal because the officer had not been notified in advance.”
Since the council has established a time to hear from citizens, Brown said, “it is impossible to imagine how expressing views during that period could hamper the council’s ability to ‘fullfil its duties.’” He went on to defend Lombardo’s right to criticize town employees and officials.
“It seems clear to us that Mr. Lombardo’s comments were, in fact, directed at the ‘performance of the business of the council’ and other town employees. For all these reasons, we urge you to re-examine the decisions that were made during the November meeting that ultimately stopped Mr. Lombardo from speaking and to refrain from barring him from speaking about town matters and officials in the future.”
During an interview Friday, Celico said that while he was awaiting William Conley’s analysis of Brown’s letter, he was inclined to continue barring Lombardo from speaking about some topics.
“I am of a mind that as long as I am the presiding officer of the council, unless the council votes to allow individuals to come to our meetings and ridicule town employees and speak about them in a negative manner, I’m not going to allow that to happen,” Celico said.
Individuals who disagree with his position “will have to take action and exercise their legal rights, because I’m not going to sit there and allow it,” Celico said.
Celico has been acting as the council’s presiding officer since June, when former council President James Silvestri resigned. Celico was elected vice president by the council following the 2016 election.
Lombardo, during an interview Friday, said he would file an action against the council if it continues to block him from speaking.
“I had no doubt the ACLU would find Celico to be in violation of the First Amendment; this was a classic case of suppressing speech based on the content of that speech. He has repeatedly shown contempt for free speech — as well as for the Town Charter and the rules of procedure which govern the Town Council,” Lombardo said.
Celico’s actions were particularly egregious, Lombardo said, in light of Brown’s 2016 letter, which made points similar to those he raised in the Dec. 26 letter. The other five members of the council at the time of the Nov. 6 meeting are complicit, Lombardo said. Celico, William Aiello, Jack Carson, Jean Gagnier, Edward Morrone and Philip Overton were on the council at the time. Karen Cioffi had not yet been appointed to fill the Silvestri vacancy.
“Each and every member of the Town Council, any one of them, could have appealed Celico’s decision — none did so,” Lombardo said.
In his 2016 letter, Brown asked the council to reconsider a proposal to bar discussion of town employees’ performance or credentials during the citizens’ comments portion of its meetings. The council, ultimately, dropped the proposed ban.
Lombardo said he cannot countenance those who question his approach.
“I don’t know who these observers are who say my manner is harsh, so I cannot address that specifically. I have found that those who do not agree with my message complain about my manner — in an attempt to detract from my criticism. Those who agree with my message don’t complain about my manner.”
“The Town Council has been, over the past several years, particularly hostile to the First Amendment and has repeatedly violated my free speech rights. I, therefore, have little time for those who complain that my manner is harsh on the one hand but do not support my right to free speech on the other. Those people do not believe in the freedom of speech,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo expressed thanks for the intervention of Brown and the ACLU.