WESTERLY — A citizen’s interrogation of Town Council Vice President Mario Celico led to a wide-ranging discussion that touched on free speech rights and the council’s rules of procedure during a council meeting Monday.
The discourse was sparked by Robert Lombardo, a local lawyer and town resident who has been a close observer and frequent critic of municipal government for about four years. On Monday Lombardo hammered away at Celico asking why his request to be put on the agenda to discuss Celico’s qualifications to serve on the council had not been granted.
“Why, when I followed the rules of procedure, send in an e-mail to the Town Clerk well before 4 o’clock on Wednesday, is it not on the agenda?” Lombardo asked.
Lombardo asked in an e-mail to address the town councilor qualification section of the Town Charter and “whether Celico is qualified to serve on the Westerly Town Council given his past transgressions.” Lombardo attached a transcript of an Aug. 17 Washington County Family Court proceeding related to Celico’s divorce to his e-mail.
A council rule states, “All matters which members of the public wish to have placed on the agenda for a Town Council meeting must be submitted to the Town Clerk by 4 p.m. on the Wednesday preceding the Council meeting.”
At one point, acting at the request of Celico, the town sergeant asked Lombardo to step away from the podium for failing to comply with a council rule that requires citizens to restrict their comments to agenda items during the first comment period of the meeting.
Celico eventually answered that he had forwarded Lombardo’s request to Town Attorney William Conley Jr. because he did not want to make a decision involving himself. Conley explained that he was on trial when the request came in to his office last week and said he was informed by an associate that he might be asked to discuss free speech rights related to a request to discuss a councilor’s “personal life.”
To prepare for the meeting, Conley selected federal court decisions on free speech and what citizens can discuss during “public forums.” According to Conley, the citizens comments portion of Town Council meetings is a “limited public forum” in which comments can be “reasonably” limited to public policy issues. He said courts have found, “ad hominem personal attacks or even matters related, as this may be, to a personal family matter not related to the public policy functions of the body do not have to be permitted in a limited public forum.”
Lombardo agreed that the council meetings provide limited public forums but said the council previously established that it would place no limits on what can be discussed.
“You don’t want anybody to hear what I have to say,” Lombardo said, adding that Celico never tried to stop Lombardo from discussing former councilors.
In the end, Lombardo noted that the family court judge questioned Celico’s credibility when he explained why he had not followed a court order regarding his daughter’s medical bill. Lombardo also noted that the judge found Celico in contempt of the order.
Councilor Jean Gagnier, clearly discussing Lombardo’s presentation, said Lombardo had devolved into a discussion of “stupid” and “petty personal attacks.” He also suggested Lombardo file a complaint with the state Ethics Commission or initiate a recall proceeding.
After the meeting Celico said “nothing I heard tonight and nothing the solicitor said leads me to believe that I’m not qualified to serve” and reiterated a point he made during the meeting. “If Mr. Lombardo tried to discuss the personal lives of any of the other councilors I wouldn’t allow it.”