As the Sun reported, on Nov. 13, Karen Cioffi was appointed to fill the five-month long vacancy on the Westerly Town Council. Predictably, Town Councilor Philip Overton recused himself from the appointment vote because he has a business relationship with the mother of the other candidate, Fred Harwood. According to Overton, he was notified by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission this relationship precluded him from voting.
Overton did not obtain a written Advisory Opinion from the Ethics Commission. By waiting until the last minute to contact the Ethics Commission, when the Sun had reported as early as Oct. 10 that Harwood had expressed an interest in the seventh council seat, Overton has shown he is not concentrating on the affairs of the Council.
If Overton was prohibited from participating in the Nov. 13 vote, as he claims, then he was also ethically prohibited from “otherwise participating” at the Nov. 6 Council meeting, where, as the Sun reported, “Cioffi and Harwood fielded questions from the six current councilors [including Overton] on why they want the position, what they would bring to the council, and how they perceive the role of council members.” (See RIGL § 36-14-5(f); Commission Regulation 36-14-5002.)
More troubling is that this year, Overton has recused himself from issues before the Council at least 17 times. In 2016, Overton recused on at least seven occasions while, in 2015, he recused at least nine times.
In addition to the sheer number, Overton has recused himself from most, if not all, of the major matters that have come before the Council over the past three years.
As the Sun has described, in 2017 alone, Overton recused from voting on: “a policy to guide the management of the pension and health insurance funds for retired police officers”; whether a “consultant will be hired to provide recommendations on how town government and School Department finance operations should be structured”; a “moratorium under consideration by the Town Council [which] would prohibit new quarrying operations from opening in the town for 180 days”; and, a vote “to fill a vacancy on the Board of Finance.”
Earlier this year, Overton recused himself from an Executive Session meeting on “land acquisition” and from a meeting with the CRMC regarding the Harbor Management Plan. He has recused on the Airport Protection Zone debate and all matters that concern Westerly Granite Inc. and the Cherenzia Companies.
Overton did not participate in the “landmark settlement agreement” reached to end the Copar lawsuits — arguably the most contentious controversy the Council has recently faced. Likewise, Overton has not participated in discussions about the Extraction Ordinance — another cantankerous issue facing Westerly.
During his first term in office, Overton recused himself from his duties 16 times. A principled man would have put Westerly ahead of his ego and not sought re-election. In the past three years, Overton has recused himself 33 times and, in doing so, has abdicated his obligation as a Councilor. He should put Westerly’s best interest ahead of his own and resign from the Council.
Robert L. LombardoWesterly