Chariho School Parents’ Forum

March 10, 2009

Court report from the Sun

Filed under: Nov 18 meeting (where I was removed from office) — Editor @ 6:30 pm

From today’s Westerly Sun:

Justices question Felkner on built-in conflicts of dual role

 Sun Staff Writer
  PROVIDENCE — William Felkner should be able to repre­sent citizens of Hopkinton on both the Town Council and Char­iho Regional School Committee, his attorney told the state’s high court Monday, but justices ques­tioned whose interests he would serve if there were conflicts be­tween the offices. Suppose the other towns in the school district, Charlestown and Richmond, endorsed teaching the Chinese language in schools, but Hopkinton didn’t want to support it for financial reasons. How would Felkner react, asked Jus­tice William P. Robinson III.

  Or, what would happen if the school board wanted to close a school in Hopkinton and send the students to Richmond, in­quired Justice Paul A. Suttell.

  Retired Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, who continues to sit on the bench until a replacement is named, raised concerns over the role of the council when a budg­et is set for the school district.

  Williams, a Richmond resident and former town solicitor for Hopkinton, asked Felkner’s at­torney if the council “sign[s] off on the budget” or offers a recom­mendation to school officials.
  Felkner’s lawyer, Nicholas Gorham, replied it does not.

  “It has no say whatsoever?” Williams asked.

  Gorham again replied no, say­ing the school budget is “con­trolled by the people.” Taxpayers vote on a proposal adopted by the school board before the towns’ budgets are set.

  Williams pressed again about the council, “They’re always in agreement with what Chariho recommends?”
  Gorham disagrees with Chariho Solicitor Jon M. Ander­son that Felkner represents all who live within the school district. He claims Felkner’s constituency only includes those from Hop­kinton because they are the ones who elected him, as school board members are chosen by voters from their respective town.

  “You were elected by peo­ple in your district and you were obligated to serve the entire state,” Acting Chief Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg told Gorham, a former longtime state rep­resentative.

  She also cited sections from the Hopkinton Town Charter that define town councilors and school com­mittee members as elected officials and indicates elect­ed officials cannot hold more than one office in town gov­ernment.

  “So why shouldn’t this case be solely decided on those grounds?” Goldberg asked.

  Gorham contended the school committee is not part of town government.

  In his 20-minute argu­ment to the court, Gorham also claimed the school com­mittee did not have the au­thority to remove Felkner from its meeting in No­vember, calling it a “dan­gerous precedent” for mu­nicipal and school boards. The board’s vote was taken after Felkner was sworn to the council.

  Goldberg, citing an 1887 decision by the court, said, “Where the offices are in­compatible, the acceptance of one means you have va­cated the other. That’s a matter of law.”

  Williams later asked Gorham why his client wants to serve on both boards.

  “I don’t know. I think he has an agenda that he wish­es to pursue,” Gorham replied, adding there needs to be more people like him. Felkner has told The Sun that he wanted to serve on both to implement a school voucher system, in which parents would choose a school for their children, regardless of location.
  Goldberg asked Ander­son about the school com­mittee’s vote to disqualify Felkner.

  “It was a gutsy move by the school district to move on its own,” she said. “What other options did it have?” The Chariho solicitor replied it had none, as Felkner had taken a seat at the committee table at the start of the meeting.

  “Wouldn’t it call into ques­tion” the votes that were taken by the school com­mittee after it removed Felkner, Suttell asked.

  Anderson said that, had Felkner been allowed to re­main on the board, he would have been permitted to par­ticipate in a private ses­sion that was scheduled for that night. Felkner’s at­tempt to sit in on the session forced the committee to postpone the meeting.

  In concluding his argu­ments on the case, Anderson quoted from the Federalist Papers, a series of essays published in the late 1700s to explain the importance of the new Constitution for the United States: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

  The justices gave no in­dication as to when they would issue a decision. De­cisions are typically released six to eight weeks after a hearing, court spokesman Craig N. Berke said.

  Justice Francis X. Fla­herty recused himself from the case, but did not provide a reason.

  After the court session, Felkner told The Sun, “I was disappointed in the chief [justice]’s description in my behavior of being less than sterling [at the school committee meeting]. … I don’t know why anyone would say that.”

  A couple of hours later, he wrote about the court hear­ing on his blog, Chariho School Parents’ Forum, ac­cusing Goldberg of seeming “to show a bias immediate­ly when she said, ‘your client’s conduct is not ex­actly sterling when he dis­rupted the meeting.’ ” “I wonder if she saw the tape of the meeting and what disruption I caused,” he wrote. “Furthermore, considering the CSC [Char­iho School Committee] had five days notice that I would be coming to the meeting, could they have done some­thing differently to avert this distraction?”



  1. What other conclusion can you reach except bias when the acting chief justice accepts Chariho’s version of events even when a tape exists demonstrating Mr. Felkner did nothing disruptive at the meeting? Anyone who saw the tape can see Mr. Felkner was compliant in every way other than his verbal refusal to give up his seat which he was elected to fill. When push came to shove, literally, he even complied and gave up his seat.

    The questioning as described in the article and as reported by Mr. Felkner bodes poorly for the rights of Hopkinton to pick our own representative. I’ve had some experience with judicial corruption in the Rhode Island legal system, but I had hoped the corruption didn’t extend to the highest court. Then again we’ve had recent R.I. Supreme Court justices end up on the wrong side of the law, so I guess my optimism was naive.

    I could still be proven wrong, but I think the outcome of this case is preordained by the hardball questions asked of Att. Gorham versus the softball questions lobbed Mr. Anderson’s way. The next question seems to be where to go from here? Either Mr. Felkner takes back his School Committee chair or the Town Council chooses a Felkneresque replacement who will stand-up for the families of Hopkinton. I wonder if RS is still willing to fill the void should it come to that?

    Comment by Curious Resident — March 10, 2009 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  2. I must say that I have (regretfully) learned a great deal about our court system. I thought that the justices would have spent time reviewing the CHARIHO ACT, a tape of the meeting, and discuss the LAW, not their own “feelings” or political sway. Even Justice Williams did not understand the CHARIHO Act and the Town Charter.

    I am really sad at the type of system we have had demonstrated to us.

    Comment by Dorothy — March 11, 2009 @ 9:58 am | Reply

  3. Honestly, the biggest regret I have is that the Town did not send a friend of the court brief to the court supporting our interpretation of the Hopkinton Charter. It was mentioned in our briefs but something official may have been better. But that’s my fault as I asked the town not to spend any money on it. That being said, many people have told me that we can’t read anything into the questions by the judges as they will sometimes question heavily the side they agree with looking for reasons not to agree with them (Chief Goldberg’s comment however stands on its own).

    Comment by Bill Felkner — March 11, 2009 @ 11:02 am | Reply

  4. We can only hope you are right Mr. Felkner.

    The language used such as “gutsy” for the School Committee and a description of Mr. Felkner taking his seat as “disruptive” seems to indicate the Supremes are willing to set aside the will of the voters of Hopkinton. This will be very disappointing, and, as Mrs. Gardiner notes, if the outcome goes against Hopkinton it will demonstrate the willingness of even our highest judges to disregard the law in favor of political and personal influences.

    Comment by Curious Resident — March 11, 2009 @ 3:20 pm | Reply

  5. Sadly, Mr. Felkner is correct in that our Town council should have kicked, screamed and bitten to see to it that MY rights were upheld. I believe that is their job, to represent me, and to protect my rights as a Hopkinton citizen.

    This court “fight” is NOT about Mr. Felkner, regardless of whether you like or dislike him, this is a fight about the intent and the writing of the CHARIHO Act, and our Town Charter. It matters not if a justice likes or dislikes Mr. Felkner or the politics surrounding this issue. The law, as written, should remain pure and inviolate. This includes the CHARIHO Act and The Hopkinton Town Charter. Neither of these should be considered as to the impact Mr. Felkner might have, nor what one feels from their own view is “right”. The CHARIHO School Committee should have no right to challenge or interpret the CHARIHO Act to remove a dissenting member, and the Justices should interpret the law as written without personal feelings or comments.

    I said at one Town council meeting that our forefathers had a WAR over taxation without representation, and currently we are being taxed by CHARIHO without full Hopkinton representation. Indeed, Mr. Felkner should not be the focus, MY rights ARE the focus.

    For any court to have considered Mr. Felkner “disruptive” means that those doing the judging have not viewed the video of the meeting. For Mr. Williams to have to question what Mr. Felkner might or might not have power over shows a lack of preparation and understanding of an act which impacts his own town.

    So, my discouragement is because this is such a basic principle, and so important to the freedom I expect, that I do not want to see this judgment rendered based on “feelings”, a dislike of the person, or any political sway.

    Comment by Dorothy — March 11, 2009 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

  6. Hi!
    I was pleased my brother and I attended together, as we both have an interest in this matter. Personally I hope my instincts are wrong, and they may be. What concerns me is lack of accountability the school committee has to the individual town councils for the bottom line budgets. MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT, THE CHARIHO REGIONAL SCHOOL COMMITTEE HAS NO BAR FROM THE TOWN COUNCILS ON THEIR BUDGET,LIKE A SINGLE TOWN SCHOOL DISTRICT HAS.
    Holly Eaves has a letter in tonight’s Westerly Sun in regards to the Felkner matter saying it is NOT personal.
    On April 7TH, is the vote on the Chariho Budget by referendum. I am voting NO! BTW voting against the budget to be presented to the voters were Hopkinton: Abbott and Vecchio and Charlestown: Carney. Absent was Serra,Richmond. Vote was at last night’s school committee meeting. Don’t be surprised if the school budget goes down on April 7TH, because of the economy among other factors. The Richmond Town Council wants the vote delayed but Deb Carney notes the change will conflict with the Charlestown Town Charter.

    Comment by Scott Bill Hirst — March 11, 2009 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

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