It finally appears to be dawning on the Westerly Town Council that the Copar Consent Order it authorized last February is an unmitigated failure. Instead of taking responsibility for the debacle, however, the council has found a scapegoat in the person of Attorney Robert Craven.
Mr. Craven bears no blame for the mismanagement of the Copar lawsuit — that blame sits squarely on the shoulders of the council, Town Manager Michelle Buck, and her attorney, Richard Boren. Still, an obtuse council vaguely disparaged Mr. Craven without even providing him the opportunity to defend himself.
The town of Westerly hired Mr. Craven in December of 2012, to act a “special zoning official” because of, as Town Manger Steven Hartford explained, “the exterior pressure on [Zoning Official] Liz Burdick from all interested parties in the Copar matter.” (Mr. Hartford knew that the Liz Burdick train wreck was about to jump the tracks.) In March of 2014, Mr. Craven presented the council with a final invoice for the time he spent preparing for and attending his February 14, 2014, deposition.
At a recent public meeting, without Mr. Craven’s presence, the council orchestrated its charade.
Council President Diana Serra eloquently articulated her disapproval with Mr. Craven’s invoice: “I don’t feel the result was in the best interest of the town. We didn’t like the work that was done. It was done but yet we were unhappy but yet like you say the bill has to be paid.” Councilor Patricia Douglas was unabashedly oblique: “The public. . . . they don’t understand what happened and what we were told in executive session. So they don’t understand why we are dissatisfied.” Councilor Jack Carson succinctly summed up the whole sordid performance: “Our frustration . . . was a matter of executive session discussion and the least said about it the better off we as a town will be. But the people should know that we’re displeased and not satisfied.”
Councilman Caswell Cooke had attempted to introduce some common sense and decency into the theater of the absurd: “I might feel better if we had a face to face [with Mr. Craven] and we got a briefing on . . . the job that was performed . . . then I would feel better about voting.” As is her wont, parsimonious Pat Douglas doused that spark of sanity: “But to bring him here we would end up paying him more.” Predictably, Ms. Serra echoed her: “You bring anyone here you will have to pay even more.”
Ostensibly, to save a couple hundred bucks in a case in which the council has, or will soon have, squandered nearly a half million dollars, it publicly condemned Mr. Craven in absentia without presenting a single allegation.
Section 2-1-8 of the Town of Westerly Charter states that “all meetings shall be public, however, the council may recess for the purpose of discussing in a closed or executive session, any matter which would tend to defame or prejudice the character or interest of any person.”
This means that although the charter allows the council to keep the public out of its meetings, the charter does not require “a closed or executive session” on any issue. That is a choice made solely by the council. The cruel irony is that the council should have met in executive session to discuss with Mr. Craven his performance. Instead, it brazenly hid behind its closed meeting to publicly defame and prejudice the character of Mr. Craven.
Unlike the council, I have read the transcript of Mr. Craven’s deposition and found Mr. Craven’s testimony to be competent and ethical. Mr. Boren, did not appear to have any objection to Mr. Craven’s testimony — he neither posed a question nor made any attempt to rehabilitate the testimony. What was apparent from reading Mr. Craven’s deposition was that Mr. Boren was over his head and out-lawyered. Equally obvious was that the grossly mismanaged Copar case was now rapidly going to hell in a handbasket.
Before Robert Craven was even deposed, Mr. Boren had arranged a meeting of the Town Council in executive session on Tuesday, February 18, 2014, to discuss settling the case. That closed meeting was not Mr. Boren “just want[ing] to update the council,” as Ms. Serra was quoted in a February 20, 2014, Westerly Sun article. That was Captain Boren shouting: ‘Mayday! The ship is sinking!’ Mr. Craven may have exposed a hole in the hull, but he was not in the bridge — that position was occupied by Ms. Buck and Mr. Boren.
On February 21, 2014, three days after the council’s closed door meeting, the parties notified Judge Stern they had reached a settlement and the Consent Order had been placed on the Westerly Town Council agenda for Monday evening, February 24, 2014.
Ms. Serra, as reported by the Westerly Sun, claimed she expected the case to begin in court on Monday. She, no doubt, was left out of the loop — or, arguably, worse.
The council orchestrated a farce to announce this to the good people of Westerly: we are unhappy with Mr. Craven’s work; you don’t understand because you weren’t at our secret meeting; and, it is better you don’t know what we were told in our secret meeting. This feckless disparagement violated not only the spirit of both Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Law and Westerly’s charter but common decency as well. It is an embarrassment to the town of Westerly and the council owes Robert Craven an apology.
Robert Lombardo is an attorney practicing in Westerly.