ACLU Sues R.I. Town For Refusing to Schedule Fall Elections

May 9, 2001 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Rhode Island
Media Contact
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United States

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging a decision by North Smithfield city officials not to hold elections for Town Council or School Committee seats this fall.

The ACLU lawsuit argues that the town’s unprecedented refusal to hold regularly scheduled elections is a violation of local residents’ constitutional right to vote. The effect of the Town’s action is to unilaterally increase by one year the terms of sitting Town Council and School Committee members as they are established by the Town Charter.

“We have not found reference to another case where a town simply called off an election,” said Howard Merten, an ACLU volunteer attorney. “This case raises a critical and unprecedented issue respecting the right to vote, a right the U.S. Supreme Court has called ‘preservative of all rights.’ We seek to preserve that right for the citizens of North Smithfield.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of four North Smithfield residents: two voters, Robert V. Rossi and Margaret Murphy, and two potential candidates, Paul LeClerc, who would like to run for Town Council this year, and Christine Bonas, who would like to run for School Committee.

“The right to choose who our elected leaders will be is fundamental to our existence as a democracy, whether that election be at the local, state or federal level,” Rossi said. “By refusing to schedule required elections, the Town of North Smithfield has denied us our right to vote and participate in our government.”

Town officials purport to justify their cancellation of elections by relying on a local referendum passed in 1998. That referendum authorized a change in town elections from odd to even-numbered years, but only “beginning in the year 2002.” Despite the clear reference to 2002, Town officials prepared the 1999 ballot to show Town Council candidates as running for a purported term of three years, and School Committee members for five years.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU points out, that at the time of that election, the Town Charter clearly called for (and still calls for) two year terms for Town Council members and four year terms for the School Committee. The suit further notes that “no minutes of any Town Council or Board of Canvassers meeting reference consideration or approval of any resolution, ordinance or proposed charter amendment extending the terms” for these elected positions, and that any such approval would have been null and void in any event.

The ACLU is seeking a court order barring the town from not holding elections in 2001 and preventing the town from extending the terms of any Town Council or School Committee members beyond their prescribed two- and four-year terms.

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