WESTERLY — Edward Morrone is the Town Council’s new president and William Aiello is its new vice president following elections conducted during a special meeting Friday.
The meeting included pleas from the public, strongly worded statements from councilors, and disagreements over laws and rules of procedure. The meeting was scheduled after Morrone, Aiello, and Councilors Jack Carson and Karen Cioffi filed a request with the Town Clerk’s office. After the meeting Morrone addressed rampant speculation concerning why he and the other three sought to reorganize the council.
“None of this has anything to do with the town manager’s position. We recently started dealing with his review and hopefully we complete it within the next week or so,” Morrone said.
A recent editorial in The Sun speculated that the move to reorganize the council might have been a preliminary step to eventually dismissing or seeking Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy’s resignation. Kennedy did not attend the meeting Friday.
Most of the councilors opted to speak after the new officers were elected. Councilor Philp Overton, who did not vote for Morrone or Aiello, repeated his oft-spoken praise for Kennedy, saying he had helped address financial weaknesses in municipal government.
“Because of the work of the last council and this council and Derrik Kennedy, this town is in very, very good shape. I didn’t vote for the change because what we had been doing worked. I wish our new leadership the best but I am very concerned that they will take us backwards,” Overton said.
The road to the election was a bumpy one. Councilor Jean Gagnier questioned a legal opinion issued by Town Attorney William Conley Jr. and noted that the Town Charter specifies that the council should conduct an election of officers every two years but contains no provisions on how to handle vacancies. Conley acknowledged the lack of direction on vacancies but said he believed the council had the legal authority to conduct a midterm election or reorganization because the Town Charter does not prohibit such actions.
Gagnier also questioned whether Conley’s decision was consistent with one of the cases he cited in his opinion and said Conley was essentially telling the council to suspend its rules to conduct the election of officers.
The uncertainty stemmed from the resignation of former Council President James Silvestri in June. Councilor Mario Celico, who had been elected vice president after the 2016 election, stepped up as the council’s presiding officer. In addition to having the authority to elect a president, Conley said the council was also justified in electing a new vice president even though the position continued to be filled by Celico.
In a strongly worded statement, Celico said Morrone, Aiello, Cioffi, and Carson failed to inform him, Gagnier and Overton that they had called for the special meeting, a failure he called “unseemly” and lacking in civility and transparency.
After motions to elect Gagnier and Celico to the presidency failed, the council took up Morrone’s candidacy. He was elected by a 5-2 vote, with Gagnier and Overton in the minority.
The vote on the vice presidency produced a dramatic moment. Aiello voted for himself and was supported by Morrone and Carson but was opposed by Gagnier, Celcio, and Overton. That left Cioffi, who labored for about three minutes before eventually voting for Aiello.
Before the vote for a new vice president, Gagnier pleaded with his colleagues: “I’m asking you to think long and hard about this. There is no vacancy. Do we want to work together or do we want to remove Mario Celico when we don’t have cause? Do you want to try to heal? Don’t do this.”
After the votes, Cioffi called the decisions “agonizing.” She thanked Celico for doing “a fine job” but noted that organizations sometimes seek a change in leadership because of a desire for a new perspective. She also referred to the situation as a possible “bad marriage.” She asked the councilors to do their jobs and asked the public to refrain from harsh personal criticism on social media.
Carson tried to address accusations of politicking. He revealed that in the days after Silvestri’s resignation, he and Aiello had asked Silvestri to reconsider and give up the time-consuming job of president but continue as a regular member of the council. Had Silvestri agreed, Carson said he assumed Celico would have taken over as president. “This was a sincere, bipartisan, good faith effort carried out because of the respect we had for Councilor Silvestri,” Carson said. “It was not a coup arranged against Councilor Celico. We were very much prepared for Councilor Celico to be the president.”
Robert Lombardo, a close observer of the municipal government, said reorganization was a natural development in democracy, where the majority rules.
Morrone, Aiello and Carson are Democrats. Gagnier and Overton are Republicans. Celico is registered as an unaffiliated voter but was formerly a Republican. Cioffi is unaffiliated.
Kevin Plunkett, a town resident, accused the council members of bickering with each other, behavior he described as “adults behaving badly” and asked the members not to reorganize but instead to focus on economic development, infrastructure and other pressing needs. He also noted that a provision approved by voters in 2016 allows for recall elections and said some residents had already started to gather signatures seeking a recall. He did not specify who would be targeted by the recall effort.