Bonnet Shores Election Laws Challenged | Narragansett Times


In the fire department, the right to vote depends in part on land ownership.

NARRAGANSETT – In June 2019, at the Bonnet Shores Fire District (BSFD) annual meeting where their local elections are held, a district resident was denied the right to vote. The reason? Her name was not on the deed of ownership of the house where she lives with her husband.

“I was refused a ballot paper by [then-BSFD Clerk] Matthew Mannix, ”said Melissa Jenkins, who is currently part of a lawsuit suing the district over its voting laws. “My name is not on our deed, although my husband and I co-own the house and jointly pay taxes.

“It seemed wrong to me,” Jenkings continued. “Many neighbors shared this experience – some have properties in trust, others are adult children or spouses of the notarized owner, others are long-term tenants, all were denied the ballot. ”

At the time, Mannix was on the ballot for his re-election as BSFD clerk. He recently resigned from his post.

“To vote in the Bonnet Shores Fire District, which is a national non-profit and not a public entity, an individual must own real estate within the fire district boundaries,” Mannix said when asked. asked to comment. Melissa Jenkins does not own any real estate in the Fire District, and when she tried to illegally obtain a ballot at the 2019 Fire District Annual Meeting, I told her she couldn’t not get one because she was not on the voting list. This rule has been in place for decades. I did not create the rule. As clerk at this annual meeting, my job was to enforce this rule. “

“Apparently, Melissa Jenkins doesn’t think this rule applies to her,” Mannix continued. “When it comes to the role of the clerk in registering voters at the assembly, she completely misunderstands that role. It is the job of the clerk to register the voters who vote by proxy at the annual meeting under [BSFD] statutes. ”

The former BSFD clerk said the rule “may change in the future” but was followed in the 2019 election.

The voting law stems from the fire district charter, now nearly a century old, which includes the following wording, requiring a minimum of land ownership in the district in order to be able to vote:

“Any company, legal person, unincorporated association and any person, without distinction of sex, aged eighteen years, who owns in a personal capacity a building in the said district of the value of [$400] beyond all charges, being a succession in fee simple, fief tail, for the life of any person, or a succession in reversion or in balance, the transmission of which the succession must, if by deed, have been registered at least 90 days, must thereafter have the right to vote at all meetings of the company.

Under this district charter requirement, those who rent in the neighborhood, have property in trust, are the adult children of parents whose names still appear on the property deed and spouses may not be able to vote in the land. local elections.

A semi-autonomous neighborhood, BSFD, created by charter and approved by the RI General Assembly (RIGA) in 1932, includes all properties between the east line of Boston Neck Road and Narragansett Bay, according to its charter, from the current Bonnet Liquors at Nardolillo Funeral Home. BSFD is part of Narragansett, however, the ownership of roads is a subject of debate in this area, as at different times its charter refers to “existing private roads” and, later, “public roads” in the context. sewer maintenance. The BSFD has the capacity to elect its own council, its clerk, its assessors and tax collectors as well as its fire and police personnel.

The district is also able to write its own ordinances and budget. Residents of the Fire District pay taxes to both the BSFD and the Town of Narragansett, and the Fire District has received grants from the state as a quasi-municipality.

BSFD is also home to the Bonnet Shores Beach Club at 175 Bonnet Point Road. Here, non-residents can purchase beach huts, some very small in size, which some have described as “closets” or “bathrooms” and, under the BSFD Charter, legally vote in BSFD elections while that full-time residents of the district, like Jenkins, are being turned away. The district charter does not specify whether the land ownership requirement to vote is for residential real estate, which means that commercial property, such as condominiums, is valid property under the district electoral law.

“However, the BSFD elections allow many non-residents to vote, including owners of non-residential property located in the BSFD,” reads a complaint filed by a group of BSFD residents challenging election laws district as unconstitutional. “These non-residents number in the thousands, including more than 4,000 owners of public baths or beach club cabins at the neighboring Bonnet Shores Beach Club.”

The lawsuit against BSFD was filed in March last year by Jenkins and other BSFD residents, who first appealed to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office. On August 22, 2019, Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea sent a letter to BSFD President Michael Vendetti suggesting that the current distribution of voting rights under the BSFD charter was unconstitutional and citing a precedent for such a conclusion in Rhode Island of 1981. Case Flynn vs. King, which involved the emancipation of the West Glocester Fire District 1959 charter providing that in order to be eligible to vote and hold office, one must own taxable property in the district. In that case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the provision “denies equal opportunity to otherwise qualified voters.”

“I encourage you to review your charter and make any necessary changes to ensure it does not conflict with the above decision,” Gorbea wrote. “As the state election official, it is my duty to ensure that all eligible voters have the right to vote in elections that affect their daily lives. It is essential not to deprive any resident of the BSFD of the right to vote in an election. ”

On October 16, 2019, the BSFD district council held a meeting at which Anita Langer, member of the district council, proposed to amend the BSFD charter to comply with Flynn vs. King, in accordance with the letter from the Secretary of State. Langer said the right to vote should be tied to residency “because the current taxpayer requirement is unconstitutional.” However, his motion did not receive a second.

Today, the Rhode Island Civil Liberties Union of America (RI ACLU) filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the plaintiffs, stating that the BSFD voting law represents a form of classism.

“By restricting the right to vote to certain ‘owners’, the BSFD is part of a long history, and rightly discredited, in this country and this state by restricting the right to vote to a privileged class”, we read in the brief of RI ACLU. “The story of the franchise in the United States is a story of power. It reflects who is in power at any given time, as well as who is being left out. ”

“These determinations have historically been linked to wealth, race and gender,” the memoir continues. “The fact that they have been tolerated in the past is not a reason to validate their continued use in Rhode Island.”

The brief calls the BSFD’s restriction on the right to vote to landowners “a throwback to long-discredited old notions of who has the right to participate in our state and local government.”

“The Bonnet Shores Fire District charter seems caught in a time loop that has ignored the evolution of voting rights in the United States and Rhode Island since its adoption in 1932,” he concludes. “This relic of a period of widespread deprivation of the right to vote is unconstitutional and cannot last.”

BSFD legal adviser Thomas M. Dickinson is said to have said that the fire district is not a government entity and rather operates in the same way as a neighborhood or condominium association. When asked to clarify recently, Dickinson declined to comment.

The BSFD’s annual meeting and local elections took place on Thursday evening, where a group of BSFDs show up, some of them not on the ballot, based on the district’s electoral laws being brought into line. with the recommendation of the Secretary of State. Until the laws are changed or the court rules on the case, the charter laws will remain in effect.

“Without any changes to the voting rules, I will not be allowed to vote again,” Jenkins concluded.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 21 in Washington County Superior Court.

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