NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Jesse Pugh was chosen as the new Narragansett Town Council president, with Susan Cicilline-Buonanno named president pro-tem, at the start of the newly-elected council’s two-year term on Monday.
The unanimous votes for both came at the start of a marathon meeting lasting more than four hours, and with several action items designed to overturn votes or change policies of the prior Town Council.
“I look forward to working with you all closely over the next two years,” Pugh told the other members. “It was very encouraging to see the town come together for a common cause regardless of political affiliation. It seems clear what the voters of Narragansett are looking for is decency and respect from their town government; decency between council members and respect for the public and the will of the people.”
Cicilline-Buonanno also announced that several lawsuits against the former council, filed by Gilbane Corp., Love Your Library and Friends of the Library, had been withdrawn with the change of power in town.
“This Town Council will move ahead with all the library plans that have been delayed for the last two years. It is wonderful to have a newly elected council that supports the library as a department of our town and supports the new library being built at the Belmont building.”
Because of COVID-19 precautions, all the council members were sworn in separately Nov. 25 at Town Hall council chambers and the event was videotaped and played at the start of Monday’s meeting. The election of officers, however, took place Monday night at the start of council business.
And in stark contrast with the last council, where Pugh and Patrick Murray were in the minority and on the losing end of many 3-2 votes, every vote at Monday’s meeting was unanimous.
In one key change, council members introduced a move to place 30 minutes of public comment period back at the start of the meeting, before the consent agenda.
“I think Patrick and I spent about six months in the last term trying to get this back to the beginning,” Pugh said.
Attendees and residents had complained about the late start for public comments after hearing all other business, with some accusing the previous council of trying to stifle free speech.
Pugh said the council would welcome public comment on all agenda items, and at workshops.
Politics also came into play during the meeting. Among the more contentious issues the council took up Monday was a move to overturn a recent appointment of two new members to the Library Board of Trustees by the prior council.
“This one’s a little thorny,” sponsor Murray said. “I bring this up with a heavy heart.”
The council voted to approve the dismissal of newly appointed Library Board members Jeff L. Dentler and Douglas E. McLaughlin.
The previous council chose them over three longtime incumbents who were seeking reappointment.
“This is a reset of something I think was a disservice to the people who served on this board, the town and the library supporters,” Murray said. “It was clearly, for me, a vengeful decision by the outgoing council.”
Doing so, Murray said, would discourage politically-motivated “revenge appointments” by outgoing council members.
The council then voted to appoint Gail S. Shields, Ann S. Sullivan and Gloria M. Roman to the board. All three had served on the board and applied to serve another term. The previous council instead chose Dentler and McLaughlin on Oct. 5.
Speaking during public comments, Dentler compared his situation to being voted off the island on “Survivor.”
“I fully intend and hoped to stay on the island for three years, but obviously there’s an opinion that I should be voted off the island,” he said.
Several commenters also defended Dentler as a suitable board member, and questioned the precedent the council would set.
“I just know this individual personally and he’s really a terrific person to have in any organization and in our town,” Peg Fredette said.
The town’s charter is silent on removal of board members, Town Solicitor Mark Davis said.
Later, the council passed a resolution by Buonanno and Murray to ratify previous resolutions to authorizing bond issues to purchase the former Belmont building, to be used as the site of a new library.
The council also voted to transfer $441,000 from the town’s general fund to the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library’s 2020-21 budget. That amount had been removed from the town’s allocation to the library by the previous council, a move objected to by library supporters.
Also Monday, Town Manager James Tierney gave the new council a COVID update, noting that six employees are out on quarantine but also some good news that 18 town businesses and nonprofits applied for and benefited from the state’s “Take it Outside” grant initiative to provide outdoor tables, tents, heaters, lighting and blankets.
“The merchants were very happy to receive them,” Tierney said.