A Warwick state legislator, who co-sponsored legislation in January to create a new statewide mooring fee, is seeking $499,600 in alleged damages from the East Greenwich Yacht Club.
Joseph A. Trillo (R-Dist. 24) of Warwick, whose district includes Potowomut, filed a civil lawsuit against the club, located at 10 Water St., in November, after he was kicked out of the members-only organization. He seeks damages for alleged breach of contract, damage to his reputation and deprivation of his constitutional rights, among other claims.
In January, Trillo co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Scott A. Slater (D-Dist. 10) of Providence that would have created a new statewide mooring fee between $150 and $500. The fees would have gone to the state Department of Environmental Management for the purpose of maintaining harbor access and safety, though the state agency had no role in the bill’s creation and did not support it.
The bill, which was met with confusion and concern from area harbormasters, was withdrawn at the co-sponsors’ request March 11.
In his lawsuit, Trillo – a 12-year member of the yacht club – said he was on a waiting list for the 2014 summer season that gives priority to members on a seniority basis. His 59-foot boat, Trillogy, was in storage at the club during the 2013-14 winter season.
The lawsuit claims the yacht club’s manager, Matthew G. Jarbeau, asked Trillo to move his boat to its summer slip in Greenwich Cove by May 5, but Trillo said one of two engines was not working and needed to be repaired.
Jarbeau reportedly offered to tow Trillo’s boat using a skiff. During the tow, the lawsuit alleges the yacht club employee lost control of Trillo’s vessel, and claims Jarbeau threatened to untie the lawmaker’s boat in open waters following a verbal altercation.
On May 5, a yacht club committee conducted a hearing on the incident and reportedly suspended Trillo’s membership.
In August, Jarbeau went to East Greenwich Police, following a second verbal altercation involving Trillo on Block Island. Jarbeau told police Trillo had allegedly been “verbally abusive and confrontational in the past,” and recounted the May incident. Police advised Jarbeau he could apply for a restraining order.
On Aug. 27, Trillo was reportedly notified of a second yacht club hearing, and he was kicked out of the club Sept. 23.
The lawsuit claims the club engaged in a breach of contract by imposing disciplinary actions outside of the scope of its authority, and allowed an employee who allegedly lacked proper licensing to tow his boat from the club. Trillo is seeking damages in the amount of $99,600 with interest, costs and attorney’s fees.
He also seeks a court injunction to revoke all past disciplinary actions, and is requesting an additional $400,000 in punitive damages for “damage to his reputation and standing in the community,” and the deprivation of his constitutional rights to free speech.
The yacht club’s attorney, Michael A. Gamboli, did not return phone messages from The Independent by press time Wednesday afternoon.
A WJAR-TV Channel 10 news report in February questioned whether the mooring fee legislation was retaliation for Trillo’s expulsion from the club. The original bill, H-5257, would have given Rhode Island residents preference over marinas, yacht clubs and out-of-state residents during the mooring application process.
Trillo said Tuesday there is no connection between his lawsuit and the legislation, which was re-filed March 12.
The new bill, H-5847, would not allow individuals to use a single mooring for more than three years; prohibit the use of moorings by anyone other than registered users; allow unused moorings to be rented out by local harbor masters; and create a new marine safety patrol division of law enforcement.
“There’s nothing in the legislation that’s going to affect the East Greenwich Yacht Club,” Trillo said. “…How can that be retaliation?”
Trillo acknowledged that he “told off” Jarbeau on Block Island, but said the May and August incidents occurred in waters outside of the club’s jurisdiction. He defended his right to free speech as a private citizen.
“I can’t tell you off because I’m [also] a politician?” Trillo said. “I have constitutional rights, too. It’s called free speech.”
Trillo said he believes the May incident was an excuse to remove him from the club’s waiting list.
“The people at the East Greenwich Yacht Club are upset with me,” he said. “They’re out to hurt me politically.”
A legislator since 2000, Trillo said he has offered a number of marine-related bills during his time in the General Assembly, including one that requires sewage-holding tanks on boats to be certified. The intent of the mooring fee bill is to prevent out-of-state boaters from taking up mooring space that Rhode Islanders could be using, he said.
“I’ve done a lot to protect boaters,” Trillo said.