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Westerly parking fine was too high for years

Editor’s note: This is a revised and corrected version of a story posted earlier this morning.

WESTERLY — The town hit overtime parkers with a $25 fine for a period of years even though the ordinance establishing the fines calls for a $15 penalty.

Police Chief Edward St. Clair told the Town Council on Monday that the department had been writing tickets with the $25 fine before he was appointed chief on Dec. 13, 2011, and continued to do so until he was made aware of the discrepancy this summer. He said he then instructed his officers to write tickets for $15, not $25.

“It was several years ago that it was increased to $25. I’m not sure how that happened but it was never backed with an ordinance,” St. Clair said.

The Town Council had been scheduled to discuss changing the ordinance to make the overtime parking fine $25, but agreed instead to send the matter back to its code review committee. Some councilors said they favored keeping the fine at $15 or eliminating fines for overtime parking in the downtown area altogether.

Robert L. Lombardo, a Westerly lawyer, brought the situation to the attention of town officials after receiving two $25 parking tickets in January. He said the problem was not likely to go away quickly.

“What about the money you owe people? How are you going to pay these people back?” Lombardo asked, adding that he planned to keep the matter in front of the council.

St. Clair said he would research department records to determine collection rates and report back to the council.

Council Vice President Kenneth Parrilla, who presided over the meeting in in the absence of Council President Diana Serra, said he had been provided with information stating that a previous town manager had sent a memo to the police department calling for the increase from $15 to $25. Parrilla and St. Clair said they did not yet know which town manager made the change or why.

Interim Town Manager Michelle Buck said she would track down the memo and provide it to the council.

Lombardo, who grew up in Avondale, accused Buck of “arrogance” for not responding to his emails notifying her of the problem while she was town solicitor, in June and July. Buck disputed Lombardo’s characterization, saying St. Clair responded to him because she had forwarded the emails to him and to the council’s code review committee.

Lombardo dismissed Buck’s explanation as “mumbo jumbo” and noted that he had copied St. Clair on his emails. Former Town Manager Steven Hartford eventually responded to one of Lombardo’s communications with what Lombardo described as an “ill-advised and silly response.”

Lombardo declined to say exactly what Hartford had said, but “at least he responded.”

The lawyer also criticized Municipal Court Judge Peter Lewiss. He said Lewiss failed to properly conduct arraignments, imposing a finding of guilty rather than simply giving defendants a chance to plead guilty or not guilty and argue their cases at a later date. Lewiss also failed to follow other judicial practices, such as ensuring that the police department was represented to prosecute cases, Lombardo said.

“He plays prosecutor, fact witness, and judge — it’s disgusting,” Lombardo said. He said he was “gaveled down” and given a finding of “guilty.”

“It might not mean much to you but it’s impossible at an arraignment in the United States to be found guilty,” Lombardo said.

The town’s ordinance code also improperly states, Lombardo said, that appeals of Municipal Court decisions are to be made to Superior Court when in fact such appeals are heard by the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal. Additionally, Lombardo said, the town does not post the rules of procedure for Municipal Court.

When Lewiss did not have Lombardo’s ticket, he instead used copies that Lombardo provided. “Normally that’s grounds for dismissal, failure to produce the charging document,” Lombardo said.

Furthermore, Lewiss continued to demand $25 payments from other violators even after Lombardo had showed him that the ordinance puts the fine at $15, the lawyer said.

In an email response for this article, Lewiss initially said, “Please check the record that statement is false,” when informed of the many assertions made by Lombardo.

When asked to clarify, Lewiss replied, “It is improper as a judicial officer for me to comment on specific cases before the court. All hearings are digitally recorded and facts can be verified. These recordings are public record and available at the municipal court.”

Lombardo said the problem with the fines points to a larger, systematic problem in Westerly — the absence of a true separation of powers between branches of government.

Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said that while he would like additional information from Buck and St. Clair, he was concerned by Lombardo’s claims.

“This is a serious accusation... it looks to me like we’ve been charging $25 when we we’re supposed to be charging $15. I would say the same thing — people should be getting their money back,” Cooke said.

After the meeting, Lombardo said that Lewiss eventually “amended” his tickets and changed the fines to $15 apiece.

Lombardo said he continued to dispute the tickets on grounds that there were defects in the way they were written, and the tickets were eventually dismissed.

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