By TIM FORSBERG
It was clear from the beginning of Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting that there would be fireworks.
Prior to starting official business, council president Anthony Verardo gave a stern warning to those members of the community who planned to speak during the public comments section of the session.
“One thing before we start: I just want to make a statement regarding the end of the meeting requests to be heard. I want to be clear, it’s not a right in this meeting, it’s a privilege,” said Verardo. “It’s not a right, it’s a privilege, and it cannot be abused. It cannot be used to attack people, to make fun of people, on both sides, because it happens on both sides. As long as I’m here, and I’m here for three more months, I’m not going to allow that to happen.”
Three members of the public had been granted permission to speak to the council: resident Jean Lynch, former town councilman Ernest Pitochelli, and former town councilwoman Eileen Fuoco. Lynch intended to speak about people disrupting town meetings and lawsuits against the town and its officials.
Pitochelli wanted to use the opportunity to “protect his good name” regarding a lawsuit he was involved in with Charda Properties during his time as councilman. Fuoco intended to speak about the Johnston High School football field and why her name doesn’t appear on the dedication plaque and her recent lawsuit against Mayor Joseph Polisena, who was not in attendance during the meeting.
Lynch addresses ‘verbal attack’
At the conclusion of official business, Lynch was first to speak to the council during public comments and complained about being interrupted while speaking at a recent council meeting.
“At last month’s town council meeting, when I was addressing Councilman DelFino III, his father, Richard DelFino Jr., who did not give his name to be recorded, spoke out and accused me of breaking the open meeting laws that trumped my First Amendment rights,” said Lynch. “This loud, willful interruption was allowed to continue until I relinquished the podium.”
Lynch added that, when she returned to her seat last month, there was a heated discussion between DelFino Jr. and another member of the audience. She also referenced a “verbal attack” by DelFino Jr., the chairman of the Johnston Democratic Town Committee, which she stated occurred during the June council meeting. She was then cut off from speaking.
“That’s enough. I’m sorry, this is ridiculous. All you’re doing is standing there and attacking people,” said Verardo as he hammered his gavel. “Do you have anything to add to this meeting that’s positive, anything at all, because, honestly, I’m tired of it. You come here every single month and you’re attacking people.”
Verardo then said that, while he didn’t condone the actions of DelFino Jr. during the interaction, that any father would have “jumped up” if their son was personally attacked during the meeting.
“You got up and attacked a certain person,” said Verardo to Lynch. “Let me tell you something, if my son was attacked like that I would have done the same thing. Period.”
Verardo, referencing Lynch’s First Amendment rights, then reminded Lynch that speaking during the meeting was a privilege not a right, one he said may soon end.
Lynch then moved on to her second topic regarding town lawsuits. Before speaking, Verardo told Lynch that the council couldn’t comment on any ongoing litigation. Lynch then referenced a $2.2 million lawsuit against the town by the owners of the Music Man Café, a business that lost its operating license following a protracted battle with the council regarding street parking issues.
Soon after Lynch continued speaking, Verardo again hammered his gavel and stopped her.
“That’s it, I’m done,” he said. “I watched the stupidity in Washington last week, and I’m not going to let that happen here.”
Pitochelli told to keep it under control
After announcing Pitochelli, Verardo warned the former councilman to “please keep it under control.”
Pitochelli stated that his name recently had been “maligned” by members of the council and Mayor Polisena. He referenced the July council meeting, in which Town Solicitor William Conley listed seven counts brought against Pitochelli in a 2006 lawsuit involving Charda Properties, amongst other issues. That lawsuit resulted in an agreement for judgment in the amount of $150,000, or $15,000 paid each year for 10 years, to be paid by the town.
Conley used the case filed by Charda Properties, LLC, as an example of when indemnification was granted by the council, as questions were brought up during that June meeting regarding Mayor Polisena’s indemnification in a recent case against councilwoman Eileen Fuoco.
After several minutes discussing several topics, Verardo eventually stopped Pitochelli when he called Councilman Robert Russo “Mr. Veracity.”
“Ernie, if you’re going to state these things, state them clearly and accurately,” said councilman Russo. “Ernie, please, just move on with your life. You beat this thing ten times. You cost the town thousands of dollars, you were directly involved, it’s over.”
Fuoco questions why her name was omitted from plaque
Former councilwoman Fuoco then brought up the issue of her name not appearing on the 2015 dedication plaque at the high school football field, a matter she has long held as contentious. She stated that during the dedication, when she was an active councilwoman, that she was denied access to the field by police and was escorted off the field. She demanded the council answer the question why her name was not on the plaque.
“I want to know who made the plaque, who voted on the plaque, and who put the names on the plaque,” said Fuoco.
“I don’t have an answer for you,” said Verardo.
Fuoco then spoke about her recent lawsuit against the mayor. After nearly five years of litigation, a jury in June ruled in favor of Fuoco in her suit involving deprivation of privacy, libel and slander against Polisena. In August, however, Justice Richard Licht entirely disposed of the claims and judgment against the mayor, finding that Fuoco’s party had insufficient evidence to reasonably support its case.
Fuoco demanded to know why the council voted to indemnify the mayor against any costs associated with the case.
“I, Eileen Fuoco, was suing Joseph Polisena personally,” yelled Fuoco, who added that her case is still in court and unsettled. “I am not very happy that the taxpayers plus myself have to pay for his mistakes.”
Polisena’s indemnification during the recent lawsuit has been brought up multiple times in recent council meetings. Under Rhode Island state law, town councils must indemnify elected officials from all loss, cost, expense and damage, including legal fees and court costs, arising out of any claim or judgment. Dylan Conley, of Town Solicitor William Conley’s law office, again addressed the indemnification question raised by Fuoco.
“All those holding public office have qualified immunity. Qualified immunity comes into play in defense of individuals that are sued in either their official or their personal capacity,” said Conley. “Qualified immunity applies to all public officials as long as they are acting within the scope of their responsibilities.”
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