2014-10-30 / Front Page

Council Supports Referendum Lawsuit

By Barry Bridges

City councilors have thrown their support behind a civil lawsuit filed by three Newporters that questions the constitutionality of the casino referendum that will appear only on the statewide portion of November’s ballot.

Attorney R. Daniel Prentiss represents plaintiffs Deborah Arnold, Elizabeth P. de Ramel, and Charles Weishar in the action filed against the Rhode Island Secretary of State in Providence Superior Court on Sept. 18.

The litigation arises out of legislation that was passed in the final hours of the General Assembly’s 2014 session which removed the casino question from the local part of the ballot. As a result, Newporters will vote on the proposed Newport Grand expansion only through statewide Questions 1 and 2.

The plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that the ballot presentation violates Article VI, ยง 22 of the Rhode Island Constitution, which specifies that legislation expanding gambling in Rhode Island may not take effect “until it has been approved by the majority of those electors voting in a statewide referendum and by the majority of those electors voting in a referendum in the municipality in which the proposed gambling would be allowed.”

At their regular meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 22, councilors unanimously approved a resolution introduced by Councilors Justin McLaughlin and Michael Farley that directed Newport’s city solicitor to file a brief in support of the plaintiffs.

The resolution states that “the City Council had a reasonable expectation that the process described in Article 6, Section 22 of the R.I. Constitution, specifically that there would be a statewide referendum and a local referendum, would be the process used in November 2014” and that “the R.I. General Assembly in a bill passed on June 21, 2014… departed from the constitutional requirements for gambling referenda, substituting a single statewide referendum and eliminating a local referendum.” In doing so, the measure continues, the legislation “unconstitutionally deprives the voters of Newport their right under … the R.I. Constitution for an opportunity to vote on a local referendum.”

McLaughlin took the lead in describing the intent to protect Newport residents.

“I believe the action taken by the General Assembly on that night was unconstitutional, and I think that we should advise our city solicitor to file a brief in support of that claim,” he said.

McLaughlin’s fellow councilors quickly voiced their support. Councilor Naomi Neville remarked, “I think many of us at the time were a little surprised… because we had the expectation that there would be two questions, and then there was one question. I have no problem in supporting Mr. McLaughlin’s resolution.”

Referencing the late-night turn of events at the Statehouse, Third Ward Councilor Kathryn Leonard said, “I am not one who likes 2 a.m. decisions, which to me always bring forth the idea that there was lack of transparency. I am going to support this, and I personally would be happy to be considered a plaintiff.”

Farley added, “I’m pleased to support this resolution, because it’s our last chance to try to fix something that was handled poorly by the legislature… We need to make sure that the voters’ rights are protected and that we are standing up for the constitution. I’m looking forward to seeing the city advocating for the voters in the same way that Mr. Prentiss has been doing for the last several weeks.”

Echoing those sentiments, Mayor Henry Winthrop said, “I also support the citizens who brought the lawsuit to the Supreme Court so that the constitutionality can be reviewed and a decision can be made. The constitution needs to be upheld.”

In further comments, McLaughlin acknowledged the neutral posture that the city had so far assumed in the case. “This matter is before the courts, and the City of Newport is going to these sessions, but we are standing on neither side, neither for nor against the suit. It strikes me that we should take a side, one way or the other.”

With the council already on board, McLaughlin nevertheless offered a final reason to support the legal challenge. “We don’t very often get to deal with a constitutional question, but when we do, we shouldn’t run away from it.”

Prentiss previously reported to Newport This Week that all briefs and reply briefs outlining the parties’ legal positions would be complete by the end of October. Superior Court Associate Justice Brian Van Couyghen will then proceed in considering the merits of the arguments.

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