Explaining the Exeter Town Council recall

Exeter-Four-300x192For most Rhode Islanders, applying for a concealed weapons permit can be done by taking one of two routes. You can go through the Rhode Island State Attorney General’s office, or you can go through your local police department. In Exeter however, where there is no police department, (police calls are handled by the Rhode Island State Police) and state law stipulates that the Town Clerk bear the responsibility for issuing concealed weapon permits.

Former Town Council Member Daniel W. Patterson pointed out this odd twist of the law about two and a half years ago. Before this, going back some two decades, no one in the Town Clerk’s office can remember anyone coming to the Town Clerk for a concealed weapon permit. However, in order to comply with state law, the Town Council did the work of establishing a permitting procedure for the Town Clerk. They did their research, talking to the state police and other police departments. One member of the Town Council worked with the Attorney General’s office to determine how such permits are issued. Finally the Town Council devised an application and Exeter residents had the option to go to the Town Clerk for concealed weapon permits.

Now that the procedure is set up, the Town Council has nothing to do with the permit approval process. The process is confidential and entirely under the direction of the Town Clerk. It is required that the person requesting the permit be of legal age, that the person knows how to use the weapon responsibly and that the person pass a background check. Oddly, the Town Clerk does not run the background check. The background check is supplied by the applicant.

Though there was now a legally compliant system in place, the Town Council felt the need to amend the law at the state level. To most, this seemed like a common sense idea. Certainly Tea Party hero Doreen Costa felt that to be the case before the NRA mandated she change her mind.  To that end the Town Council, led by Council President Arlene Hicks, passed a resolution in March 2013 asking the Rhode Island General Assembly to amend the law.

Prior to the meeting in which the resolution was passed, the Town Council started receiving messages from various gun owner groups. According the Council President Hicks, she and the other council members were “essentially warned” that if the resolution was passed, these groups would “make an example” of the Town Council. According to Hicks, speaking at the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence on November 18th,

One of the most chilling emails that I received was a message printed over a graphic of a barrel of a gun, so that when I looked at my computer the gun was pointed at me.

The special Exeter Town Council meeting held on March 11, 2013 attracted a capacity crowd. The room held 250 people, and there were people outside who could not get in. Many in attendance were not Exeter residents. Though the Town Council normally allows fifteen minutes of public commentary on an issue, Council President Hicks made the decision to let everyone speak.

According to Hicks, there was one Exeter resident who tried to speak in favor of the resolution. He was treated with disrespect by the crowd, heckled and booed. Hicks feels that such treatment created a chilling effect on the rest of the crowd. No one else spoke in favor of the resolution. Despite the majority of people in attendance being opposed to the resolution, it ultimately passed by a vote of 4-1. Council member Raymond Morrissey was the one “no” vote.

The request by the Town Council of Exeter to change the law became a bill in the General Assembly that ultimately died in committee earlier this year. In short, nothing has changed in Exeter, but at the same time, a lot was going on.

Following through on their promise to “make an example” of the Town Council, a recall petition began circulating in Exeter in June 2013. Under the rules of the Exeter Town Charter, a recall can be triggered by collecting signatures from ten percent of registered voters, meaning those pushing for a recall needed to collect about 496 signatures. This was achieved, but Council President Hicks is not convinced that the signatures were all collected in an above board fashion.

According to Hicks, when she asked people she knew why they signed the petition in support of this particular issue, many replied “that’s not what the person who came to my door told me.” For instance, according to Hicks, in the age restricted condominium development for people of fifty-five years and older, residents were told that they were in danger of losing their senior citizen tax exemption, so they signed. Business owners were apparently told that the Town Council was secretly meeting to raise taxes on businesses. “The message was tailored to the audience,” said Hicks.

Four members of the Exeter Town Council are facing recall on December 14th (which is, depending on your point of view, coincidentally or ironically the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre). In addition to Council President Arlene Hicks, William P. Monahan, Robert Johnson, and Calvin A. Ellis are facing recall.

For each council member recalled, “persons who got fewer votes in the 11/06/2012 election will replace them.” First up is Daniel W. Patterson, then Edward F. Nataly and finally Lincoln P. Picillo. “If a fourth council member were also recalled, these three people, along with Raymond A Morrissey, would choose the fifth member, and they would serve until the November, 2014 election.” Morrissey, the one Town Council member not facing a recall, should be remembered for his outburst at the RI Coalition Against Gun Violence. Morrissey did have the good grace to later apologize for his outburst.

You might recall that Daniel Patterson, who owns and operates Cheaper Than Dirt! an online “firearms shop” where you can order an AK-47 for the low price of $526.34, was the man who brought this issue to the attention of the Town Council to begin with. Patterson has a checkered political history. Jim Hummel revealed that Patterson had illegally registered his truck in Vermont (where there is no vehicle tax) thereby avoiding a thousand dollar payment to the Town of Exeter. Hummel’s story came out after Patterson was elected, so the voters were stuck with him for two years before replacing him in the last election. With the recall, Patterson may have found a way to get back onto the Town Council. Talking on the Dan Yorke Show on June 17th, Patterson consistently rejected the idea of common sense reforms and insisted that the Town Clerk retain concealed weapon permitting authority.

It’s difficult to handicap the recall vote, but Town Council President Arlene Hicks feels she is getting a very positive response from Exeter voters. “Once the situation is explained to people, they do not feel that a town clerk should be issuing a concealed weapon permit. They do not feel that members of the Town Council should be recalled.”

The election is today, and voter turnout is expected to be low, and that was before snow was forecast. This may be a bad thing for the members facing recall, as only those voters most engaged with this issue will show up, and gun rights groups have no problem getting their members out in force, and in all kinds of weather.

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Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

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"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

"There comes a time when neutrality and laying low become dishonorable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame." - David Brooks

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