Members of the Chariho School Committee discuss lawsuits surrounding the appointment of Richmond resident Clay Johnson on Tuesday evening at Chariho Middle School. Jason Vallee, The Westerly Sun

RICHMOND — The Rhode Island Supreme Court will decide who will serve as the next member of the Chariho School Committee after dueling lawsuits were filed this week by Democrat Jessica Purcell and Republican Clay Johnson.

That did not, however, stop supporters of Johnson from all three Chariho communities from pointing the finger at Chariho Regional School District Attorney Jon M. Anderson, saying advice he shared with school officials and Richmond Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth last Friday went beyond his scope of duty and “muddied the waters,” causing the situation to become more volatile.

Anderson defended his decision to release the opinion, saying he would absolutely speak out if presented with the same circumstances again — especially as the Richmond Town Council’s decision to appoint Johnson could have long-term legal consequences for School Committee votes.

“When I see that the Chariho school district is about to step in a pothole, it is my responsibility to notify school officials that there is a problem,” Anderson said in response to criticism regarding his involvement, which all came from Republicans. “I will not apologize for doing things with full transparency.”

Tensions mounted further at the School Committee's budget workshop Tuesday evening as supporters of Johnson, who was selected to serve on the committee over Purcell, the third highest vote-getter in the previous election, clashed with opponents in a more than hourlong discussion in the Chariho Middle School auditorium. A divided audience of over 60 residents were at the meeting in the Chariho Middle School auditorium as a budget workshop began with discussion on whether to file an injunction on behalf of the committee.

Anderson said that although the topic was included as an agenda item, there was no longer any reason to vote or to bring a court proceeding, as the dueling lawsuits by Purcell and Johnson would address the issue in the courts.

Dueling petitions

Purcell, a Richmond Democrat, and one of several candidates for two open seats in the November election, filed a petition for quo warranto on Monday. In her lawsuit, Purcell argues that the Richmond Town Council overstepped its authority and impeded her rights by ignoring the town charter when members voted 3-2 to appoint Johnson to fill the Chariho School Committee vacancy. The appointment passed on Jan. 19 with Councilors Helen Sheehan, Mark Trimmer and Michael Colasante, all Republicans, voting in favor. Democrat Samantha Wilcox and Republican Rich Nassaney opposed Johnson’s appointment.

In November, Purcell finished just 28 votes behind Kathryn Colansante for the second open seat on the School Committee.

Under the Chariho Act, the state law governing School Committee responsibilities and district operations, when there is a vacancy on the committee it is up to the respective town council to select a replacement. Purcell said that due to revisions in the Richmond Town Charter approved by voters in 2008, the town’s charter requires that the council “appoint the unelected candidate who received the greatest number of votes for that office in the most recent general or special election.”

Purcell said that both the Chariho Act and Richmond Town Charter can exist harmoniously in this case, and that if the council had abided by the charter, there would not have been any conversations and she would have been appointed.

“I am sorry that we are all dealing with this because three people on the Richmond Town Council have decided that what the voters wanted does not matter,” said Shawn Purcell, Jessica’s husband, in addressing the Chariho School Committee Tuesday.

A lawsuit Johnson filed on Tuesday afternoon counters this argument, claiming instead that the Chariho Act supersedes the local charter and does not require the next highest vote-getter be selected. Johnson’s petition indicates that he is being denied the role despite clear language in the Chariho Act that grants town councils the right to select and vote for a replacement.

Both Richmond Town Council President Mark Trimmer and Councilor Michael Colansante defended their decision Tuesday evening, saying they were within their rights in selecting Johnson.

In speaking before the committee, Colansante compared the selection to a trademark name case he was involved in, stating that the Chariho Act is both older than the town charter and state law, which renders any local laws as unenforceable and therefore the act protects the Richmond Town Council’s decisions.

Colasante and Trimmer each questioned the process that led to a memo being released by Anderson the day after the town council made its selection and said the efforts to prevent Johnson from being seated are part of a personal agenda by those with opposing views.

“The decision I made was to follow the Chariho Act as it is written. We are all here for Chariho and I would expect that you would want us to follow that act,” Trimmer said. “There is a written code of conduct to follow and what wasn’t done by that code is how this was handled by the school’s attorney. The decision of the council is being ignored and usurped.”

No hearing date has been set in the case just yet.

Previous precedent?

In responding to criticism on Tuesday, Anderson defended his decision to reach out and said he was “acting as he had been hired to do” by presenting the district with concerns when it comes to legal matters.

Anderson was part of the team involved in the 2009 state Supreme Court case, “William Felkner v. Chariho School Committee,“ and he noted that in that case, the matter of state law and the town charter came up.

In November 2006, Felkner was elected to a four-year term on the School Committee, and in November 2008, he was elected as a member of the Hopkinton Town Council. The School Committee, upon Felkner being sworn in as a council member, declared Felkner’s holding of dual office a violation of law and sought to replace him on the committee, leading to the lawsuit.

The courts found in favor of the School Committee, which contended that Felkner’s attempt at dual office was clearly proscribed by the terms of the Hopkinton Town Charter and common-law rule prohibiting the holding of incompatible offices.

“In 2009, as we will with this case, we made clear to the court that as a result of the petition, the school district was in limbo and there were votes that, if taken with the petitioner, may not count,” Anderson said Tuesday.

Anderson told members of the audience and School Committee, when asked at separate points, that there are a specific number of votes that, if Johnson were involved, would have to be considered as illegitimate and be retaken if the courts determined that Purcell should have been seated instead.

He said that, specifically, any votes that were decided by Johnson’s vote would have to be reconsidered entirely and further noted that with any matters that would go to executive session restricting the public, all discussions or votes in those cases would be null and void due to the court ruling Johnson a member of the public, not the committee.

“These are concerns that school officials should want to be alerted to,” Anderson said. “I shared my opinion in an effort to provide full transparency.”

This reasoning was not enough for some on the committee, such as Republicans Polly Ann Hopkins and Kathryn Colasante, who each questioned how Anderson was authorized and why he acted on behalf of the Chariho School Committee when the committee had never discussed the matter.

Both members, who were among five new Republicans elected to the committee in November, said it was made clear that they were not consulted before the opinion was provided, and further said emails sent to Anderson seeking clarification on his actions were not answered prior to the meeting.

They criticized Anderson for stepping outside his role in presenting the opinion and pointed to the district’s code of conduct, which required he inform the entire board. Anderson said he had sent a copy of the opinion to the committee members at the same time it was sent to others Friday, his only written correspondence, and that he was only acting in the best interest of the district when doing so.

A frustrated public

The frustrations shared between attorneys and elected officials spilled over, as members of the audience questioned both Anderson and members of the Richmond Town Council in their decisions on the matter.

In supporting Purcell’s petition, several members of the audience spoke against the council acting in opposition to what they thought the voters wanted. Purcell finished third for two open seats in a crowded field in 2022 that included unaffiliated Richmond incumbents Ryan Callahan and William Day, who both were unable to garner enough votes for reelection.

“This is not how the process is supposed to play out and the people who voted are not being represented here,” said Michael Chambers, of Charlestown. He said that due to the regional nature of the School Committee, the Richmond decision is one that will have widespread impact on all three towns.

“The person they selected over the next highest vote-getter did not even care to run for office,” Chambers said. “(Johnson) didn’t care to run, he didn’t present a platform and he doesn’t have the track record that the Republicans are claiming.”

Trimmer and Johnson have each said he only chose not to run because it would have forced a primary, which neither believed was in the best interest of the community.

Several opposing views challenged that those who were “more liberal-minded” were instead upset because adding a sixth Republican in Johnson would even the odds, creating a 6-6 board that would allegedly considerably curb spending. Unaffiliated candidate Andrew McQuaide countered that there are no Democrats and to consider all unaffiliated candidates as liberal or opposition to Republicans is inaccurate.

Frustrations began to mount toward the end of the discussion, with multiple Republicans, including Hopkins, Colasante, Louise Dinsmore and former committee member David Stall expressing dissatisfaction with Anderson’s answers, saying Anderson had, in fact, overstepped.

When Stall demanded to know how Anderson felt justified in the communication (which Stall argued went against the district’s code of conduct before demanding that new Chairwoman Catherine Giusti step down), Anderson took the opportunity to rewind and explain how this case related to his experience in 2009.

A frustrated Stall interrupted his response numerous times, demanding focus on what he was asking, before walking away from the podium. Dinsmore also directly accused Anderson of evading explanation.

Despite the opposition to Anderson’s actions from some on the School Committee including Hopkins, Colasante and Tyler Champlin, others defended him and said they were appalled that others would seek to silence an attorney looking out for the district’s best interest. McQuaide challenged the anger as partisan and praised the work by Anderson.

“Given where we find ourselves, this matter really is moot. If he had not spoken up, however, I believe it would have been a dereliction of duty for Mr. Anderson not to engage in conversation on this,” McQuaide said.

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