Politics & Elections

Democracy comes to Bonnet Shores Fire District

“…while I was denied a ballot, thousands of people who did not live in Bonnet Shores were declared eligible to vote there by virtue of property ownership,” write Bonnet Shores resident Melissa Jenkins.

Rhode Island News: Democracy comes to Bonnet Shores Fire District

June 3, 2022, 10:33 am

By Melissa Jenkins

Nearly three years after I was turned away from voting at the annual meeting of the Bonnet Shores Fire District where I am a full time resident and registered voter, a judge has ruled that the council acted unconstitutionally and must revise voting policies.

Not only was the Fire District Council denying the right to vote to renters, non-deeded spouses, or trust-held property residents, they were granting voting privileges to thousands of people who did not live in Bonnet Shores and may never have even visited Bonnet Shores. They voted by proxy, using the council-adopted rules to benefit the privately owned Bonnet Shores Beach Club. That’s right – while I was denied a ballot, thousands of people who did not live in Bonnet Shores were declared eligible to vote there by virtue of property ownership. That property? A beach club “cabana”, storage closets as small as 4 feet by 4 feet with multiple deeded owners who all could vote on policies and leadership for my community while I could not.

Not only were my constitutional rights being violated, those of every resident of Bonnet Shores were. With 800 or so homes in the district, we were vastly outnumbered and effectively disenfranchised by the thousands of non-resident voters. Even if every single resident voted, there was no way to take back our community by voting. If you’re wondering why non-residents would want to vote, consider how investors in this private club might benefit from decisions such as the ability to receive public, private, and legislative grants, from beach, sewer, and roadway enhancements, and from the ability to use facilities and property under the stewardship of the Fire District, as have occurred in recent years while most or all elected Council members were cabana owners.

So, despite clear guidance from the Secretary of State and Attorney General’s offices, they refused to comply. What’s an activist to do? First, it was important for the community to know what was going on. If meeting agendas and minutes weren’t posted, how could community members (many part-time) be informed? How could we work together? We started a neighborhood association and Facebook page. I began attending the council meetings, in person, and live-streamed them to our page. People were shocked to learn that police were stationed in our tiny community center during meetings. Council and community members reported harassment and assault by other council members, with police reports and abandoned council posts. No minutes would appear, so we posted unofficial ones. This was not your typical community gathering, but most were unaware. We united as a community, and we opened the blinds.

Council members were quick to disparage our efforts, proclaiming in meetings and on social media how destructive and fictitious our page was. In response to ethics complaints, one council member petitioned that body to assess a $5000 “civil penalty” from each complainant. We were harassed at meetings and on social media and told we were “not real Bonnet people.” Some received threats of lawsuits if they spoke up at meetings or on social media or “cease and desist” orders from an attorney. Yet, we persisted. Love Your Bonnet signs went up around the neighborhood. We met for coffee on lawns and shared information. When the council refused to clean the beach, we organized a petition and committee to steer the effort. We organized candidates to run in the next election, and some won in spite of the skewed voter pool. We asked for help from local and statewide elected officials and the ACLU. And we sued. In addition to my own claim of disenfranchisement, six neighbors contested the dilution of their votes by non-residents.

And we won.

Even after Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea told the council that their policy basing voting rights on property ownership rather than residency was likely unlawful and offered to help revise it, the council refused to amend this policy. They also insisted that (despite having taxing authority) they were not a public body and did not need to follow normal regulatory guidelines for public bodies, including Open Meetings Laws. Even after the Attorney General’s office repeatedly upheld complaints of violations of those laws and informed them that they were a public body and needed to follow those guidelines, they worked very hard to avoid transparency and accountability. Why? Because it served them.

See previous Uprise RI reporting here:

The ACLU is extremely pleased with the settlement of this lawsuit.  It merely recognizes a basic point of a democracy: that the right to vote should not depend on how much money you have or the property you own,” said Steven Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU in a statement. “Voting is a fundamental right of the people, not the privileged. The fire district’s longstanding, archaic property-ownership requirement deserves its place in the dustbin of history. 

At the same time, we are aware that a handful of other fire districts have similar inappropriate voting restrictions in their charters. We will be following up with those districts to ensure that no Rhode Island resident is ever again denied the right to vote because they don’t own property.

On January 27, 2022, Judge Sarah Taft-Carter issued a 47-page ruling which made it clear that these policies could not continue. A settlement was reached, and Judge Taft-Carter issued a court order in which the Court adopted that agreement and granted relief to the residents of Bonnet Shores. This settlement clarifies that:

  1. Fire Districts are public bodies. As quasi-municipalities exercising government powers, they are subject to all United States and Rhode Island Constitution and laws and must operate with transparency and accountability in their operations.
  2. That basing voting rights on property ownership rather than residency is unconstitutional.
  3. That permitting non-resident Beach Club cabana owners to vote diluted the votes of residents and was unconstitutional.
  4. Fees and expenses in bringing the lawsuit would be paid by the Fire District.

In other words, every claim brought by the plaintiffs was upheld. Three years later, we have a more transparent and better-run community. To get to this point was a long, time-consuming process and truly a community effort. There are so many people to thank for getting here. My fellow plaintiffs Paula Childs, Valerie Henry, Carol and David Stenmark, and Mary and Robert Patterson (organizers and stewards of the legal process), Attorney Matthew Oliverio and Judge Taft-Carter. Council member Anita Langer, often the only voice of reason during this process. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Director of Elections Rob Rock, Attorney General Peter Neronha and the many people in his office who assisted, Director Steven Brown and Attorney Lynette Labinger from the Rhode Island ACLU who backed our efforts, all of the journalists who covered the bizarre annual meeting and other topics relating to Fire Districts and shoreline access, all of the neighbors who supported, voted, and rallied to take back our neighborhood – sincerest thanks to all of you. Sadly, our inspirational leader and neighborhood visionary David Stenmark did not survive until the end of this battle. We miss you David, and your memory continues to guide our path.

I will end with a few cautionary notes, because this is not entirely the end of the road. The charter must still be revised by committee and voted on by the neighborhood and then approved by the General Assembly. Fire Districts, even those not providing Fire Service and functioning as quasi-governments that collect property taxes, operate with an alarming lack of oversight. The Secretary of State and Board of Elections do not directly oversee their elections. There are no formal filing requirements or disclosures of campaign financing. The Ethics Commission will not act to combat self-enrichment.

Perhaps most shockingly, there are no clear guidelines as to what functions a Fire District can, and cannot, perform – which leaves them able to operate far beyond the functions envisioned when Fire Districts were enacted. They can contradict local laws and environmental policies which (unless challenged by lawsuit) go unchecked because nobody is setting any boundaries on their actions. In Bonnet Shores, this has led to disputes and lawsuits over zoning with the Town of Narragansett, disputes and lawsuits over services with the private beach club, and to environmental mismanagement resulting in property damage for residents of Bonnet Shores. More oversight is needed, with clear boundaries as to the function of non-Fire Service Fire Districts. Residents should not have to sue to forcefully obtain their rights or protect their property, nor should we perpetuate governing bodies that habitually spend a significant portion of the taxes they collect on lawsuits.