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An interview with Woonsocket City Councilmember Alex Kithes: What is ‘essential’ business?



The Attorney General’s office wasn’t “thinking that the political situation in some cities and towns is such that a city solicitor might make decisions based on politics rather than the law.

Alex Kithes, who recently earned a seat on the Woonsocket City Council, has had been having some singular experiences during the short period of time he has been serving. Kithes submitted a resolution opposing white nationalism, only to have the resolution rewritten into a mockery of itself, and then passed. The behavior of the City Council was so outrageous that the Epic Theater Company did a dramatic reading of the meeting, to an audience that could hardly believe their ears.

Most recently Kithes introduced a series of ideas for the Woonsocket City Council to help the residents and businesses of the city to better weather the COVID-19 epidemic, only to have City Council President Daniel Gendron and City Solicitor John DeSimone remove the items on the grounds that they were not “essential” agenda items under the recent executive order of Governor Gina Raimondo. Kithes resubmitted the items, and they will be heard during Monday evening’s virtual meeting.

Here’s the interview with Kithes:

UpriseRI: You submitted a bunch of ideas for helping the city get through the coronavirus pandemic.

Alex Kithes: Yes. I submitted them on Wednesday the 1st of April, over two weeks ago, for the meeting on the 6th.

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UpriseRI: And what response did you get on that?

Alex Kithes: The city clerk acknowledged that she got them, and started on processing them into formal language and format, which is the normal routine. Then I called the Council President and he told me that he and the city solicitor were going to take it upon themselves to look at everything that was submitted for this week’s meeting and remove anything that did not qualify under the governor’s Executive Order 20-05 where she restricts the Open Meetings Act to only allow meetings on “essential” agenda items.

I may have talked to the city solicitor at one point or I was texting him but I basically got the same shtick from him. So I thought, okay, maybe one of the items about expanding the allowance for curbside sales, extending it to hard liquor as well, just to give an extra source of income to businesses, that might be deemed a non-essential item. I think it’s essential because local restaurants are struggling, but I think they could reasonably make that interpretation – but I figured everything else would be included. Then, when the agenda got published, everything had been removed.

Here are the items Kithes originally submitted:

UpriseRI: So fast forward a couple of weeks…

Alex Kithes: Actually there’s one more thing. The week prior-ish, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt had issued an executive order saying that the taxes due on April 15th would essentially be delayed to at least June 1st with no penalty fees or interest would accrue in that time. It’s my understanding that the executive order was sent to the council members by the city clerk to get a vote of approval, because I believe we still have to approve them. So I said, I’d like to offer an amendment to this and amend it such that that the delay and forgiveness of interest and penalties is conditioned on not initiating or performing an eviction. Because we can’t control the landlord/tenant relationship too much, but that’s something that we can do.

So that was a week or two prior to me submitting these agenda items. I was told by the city solicitor that I should just offer it as a standalone ordinance, instead of as an amendment, so the City Council could vote on them separately. He told me that, and that was one of the agenda items that I submitted, that was then removed.

UpriseRI: So how did that City Council meeting go?

Alex Kithes: When we were voting on the executive order to delay taxes, I offered the amendment there on the spot, and the city solicitor weighed in with his substantive opinion on whether we should do this or not, which I thought was very inappropriate because he’s not an elected official, he’s not part of our deliberative body. He and City Councilmember Jon Brien basically went back and forth about why my amendment was completely unnecessary. And I kept explaining to them how each element of this could potentially happen and we should create this protection cleanly, leaving no doubt.

They argued that the courts were closed and that state level executive orders would protect renters, but I noted that if the courts re-open and the state rolls back their emergency orders, our local statute would stand. Then Councilmember James Cournoyer weighed in, because as a puppet master he has to when things get messy. And the vote was 6 to 1 against the amendment.

So then fast forward to this week. I resubmitted every agenda item but that one, because we’ve already voted on it.

UpriseRI: So what interested me is that this time when you submitted your agenda items, you included a note asking the Council President and City Solicitor to seek an opinion from the Attorney General on whether or not these are essential items. Do you know if they’ve actually spoken to the attorney general?

Alex Kithes: I do not know. So when this happened, I was furious. I put many, many calls into various state government people, including the Attorney General’s office, multiple times. And also I talked to the Lieutenant Governor, to try to figure out this was legal, if this was following the Governor’s executive order. And the Attorney General’s office kept saying that I should have our city solicitor run things by them to get an opinion if he is unsure as to whether or not agenda items are considered essential business. So City Solicitor DeSimone had not done that, so that’s why I stressed it this time and I made sure that the media and the Attorney General were aware.

UpriseRI: So the Attorney General’s office were basically saying that you should run this issue by your city solicitor and that the city solicitor can call the Attorney General for an opinion, but an individual city counselor should not call the Attorney General for an opinion.

Alex Kithes: I don’t want to impugn the Attorney General’s office because I think that they’re operating in good faith and within the confines of the executive order. But in my opinion I think the intent of the executive order was to make sure that councils are not doing things like, putting u a a new stop sign here, or issuing a resolution wishing happy birthday to some person in the city. We need to actually be focused on essential business – get in a meeting, get out of the meeting, make sure that as little as possible is discussed without the public.

I think that the Attorney General’s office is overwhelmed so they just kept saying that I should have the city solicitor get in an opinion from them if he’s unsure about anything. But I think that the Attorney General probably wasn’t thinking that agenda items like this would be immediately interpreted by the city solicitor as being non-essential.

They weren’t thinking that the political situation in some cities and towns is such that a city solicitor might make decisions based on politics rather than the law.

UpriseRI: All but one of the agenda items, the one about expanding curbside liquor sales to hard liquor, are on the agenda now. Now I don’t want to jinx this, but it’s unlikely that these ideas are going to pass this city council, right?

Alex Kithes: [Laughs] Yes. I shouldn’t chuckle at how ridiculous it is that we’re assuming that everything I’m submitting is not going to pass, because there is a legitimate death toll associated with the fact that these took two weeks to be taken up. I am sure that any homeless person that was arrested, has a much higher likelihood of dying now because of being put in a confined situation. If city employees have come into contact with the virus because they have not been able to socially distance while at work or they knew they had a virus but didn’t have enough sick time to take off, that’s going to have a quantifiable death toll. I mean, that’s really unfortunate because I tried as hard as I could to get these things quickly passed.