2014-08-28 / Front Page

Ballot Surprise Surfaces

By Barry Bridges

In a development that has opponents of the proposed casino expansion up in arms, it was announced that the referendum to approve table games at Newport Grand will not appear on the local portion of November’s ballot.

For the reimagined casino to become a reality, it must receive a nod from a majority of the electorate at both the state and local levels. However, because of legislation passed by the General Assembly in the waning hours of the 2014 session in June, there will not be a separate ballot question for Newporters. Instead, they will vote on the issue through the statewide portion of the ballot like other Rhode Islanders. Newport’s tally will be calculated separately.

This will be a change from the way a similar issue was presented in the 2012 election, when a casino proposal passed on a statewide basis but was rejected locally.

Canvassing Clerk Richard O’Neill and other city officials were notified of the change on Friday, Aug. 22.

Members of Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling (CCACG), who have led opposition to the expansion plans, expressed disbelief at the turn of events. They say that votes against the planned development, spearheaded by former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino and his partners, will be unfavorably impacted if the question is absent from the local ballot.

To support this contention, CCACG pointed to the 2012 referendum, when there were 249 more opposing votes cast locally than on the corresponding statewide initiative, implying that some Newporters did not vote on the state ballot. Opponents say that such a small margin could make a difference in the hotly-debated issue.

Just prior to a scheduled meeting of the Newport Canvassing Authority, CCACG members staged a spirited protest on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 26, to voice their dismay with the revelation.

They called the situation outrageous and unconstitutional.

One of the demonstrators, Broadway Neighborhood Assoc. President Jack McVicker, told Newport This Week that he feels state lawmakers hid the change from the community.

“Legislators have a plan to slowly chip away at the Newport ‘no’ vote with the statewide ‘yes’ vote. They are stealing votes from us. But there’s some responsibility at the local level, too. City Councilors should have had a host community agreement in place before approving the measure for the ballot. Since that is not the case, surprises will keep coming.”

CCACG campaign coordinator Liz Taber took the lead in rallying the crowd of about 50. “We have fought every initiative for 37 years and we don’t intend to lose this time. Late night deals are going on. The average citizen doesn’t know what’s happening. We want to make sure our representatives are representing us. If this was something the General Assembly was proud of, they would have told us about this change.”

She added, “If there is a constitutional attorney available to help research this, we would welcome the help.”

Perhaps the most vocal of the protesters was Charles Michael Landers, who clamored, “They’re stealing our right to vote! This is the most corrupt deal that I have ever seen. All proud Newporters should stand up and fight Paolino.”

Second Ward Councilor Justin McLaughlin was in the crowd and said that he was disappointed with the ballot change. “We want to have trust and confidence in our leaders, but to have something like this done at one or two in the morning on the last day of the session on June 22 tends to benefit the casino proponents. That is not the way to write law.”

O’Neill, who was preparing for the Canvassing Authority’s meeting inside the relative quiet of City Hall, said, “The folks outside are venting their anger at the wrong people. This is a General Assembly issue.”

The authority, comprised of Chair David Roderick, O’Neill, and David Rogers, met briefly to perform their official duty of decertifying the local question. They described the nature of the issue to CCACG members who moved inside for the meeting.

In withdrawing what was initially certified only several weeks ago, O’Neill said, “We are here because of the wording that was used in the [state] legislation. The general law was amended so that the issue will not be on the local ballot. The canvassing board is just correcting what we are by law required to do. We are legally bound to do this.”

“City voters will still have the opportunity to take a position one way or the other. The votes [on the statewide referendum] will be counted twice – one for the state tally and one for Newport,” he added.

In response to comments from Taber and others from the CCACG, Roderick said, “The Canvassing Authority operates under law. We took an action which unbeknownst to us was inappropriate [the prior certification of the local question], and we’re here to revise that. We do not have control over it; it is from the General Assembly.”

Eyes may now turn to state legislators for an explanation of why the ballot will appear differently than expected.

District 75 Rep. Peter F. Martin, who co-sponsored the original legislation with Rep. Marvin L. Abney, emailed Newport This Week and said that, like others, he was caught off guard by the changes to what he submitted in the spring.

“It is my responsibility to represent the people of Newport. When the City Council requests me, as a state representative, to submit legislation to the General Assembly, it is my duty and obligation to do so. It is not my place to filter any such requests based upon my own feelings and/or opinions.”

Martin continued, “Although I am against the planned expansion of this casino because of the predatory nature of gambling, I do believe that the voters of Newport should be given an opportunity to once again express their opinion on this issue. My recollection was that … the General Assembly was making it ‘easy’ for the voters by putting this issue only on the state ballot, not on the local ballot.” He wrote, “I have no reason to believe at this time that this was done to affect the outcome.”

Since news of the ballot issue broke on Monday, Aug. 25, Senate President, Teresa Paiva Weed has been unavailable for comment.

McLaughlin holds out hope that something can be done to change the situation before the general election on Nov. 4.

“Right now the state is focused on the primary election, and they won’t be printing the November ballots for a while. So there is a window of opportunity to get something done. The biggest question is what.”

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