NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The North Kingstown Town Council Monday night saw some tense exchanges and ended in under 20 minutes after voting only to adjourn the meeting and to table all items to the next scheduled meeting on Nov. 16.
The exchanges centered around Town Council President Greg Mancini, who drew ire from several of his fellow councilors, especially the Republicans, over last week’s press conference held at the town offices with Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, also a North Kingstown resident, and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI02). The councilors also took issue with his relationship with a student-led political group called NK Students4Candidates, which endorsed Mancini along with fellow Democrats Katie Anderson, Kim Page, Jack Kliever and Brad Artery, all of whom are running together under the “Five Forward NK” banner.
“Mr. President, with your indulgence, I’d like to read a letter please,” Councilor Kerry McKay said immediately following the conclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance.
In the letter, McKay said he came to clarify and express his disbelief over the press conference to encourage early voting, an event which he said he was nearly left unaware of.
“On this tremendous, momentous occasion, it appears that Mr. Mancini, our Town Council President, and Nellie Gorbea, our Secretary of State, forgot to invite our local Town Council leaders,” McKay said. “Can you imagine two Republicans doing this? We’d be boiled in oil and tarred and feathered.”
He also accused Mancini of actively engaging with the NK Students4Candidates group and using school assets and imagery to promote “a pro-Democratic (Party) website.”
The group, which has since registered as a Political Action Committee with the state Board of Elections, was subject to an investigation by the Rhode Island State Police and Board of Elections for campaign finance violations after complaints from the town and state Republican Parties over their creation of political signage and a campaign endorsement video of the five Town Council candidates along with the three Democrats running for School Committee.
The organization also had to cease usage of the Skipper mascot, whose copyright status is unknown, at the request of the School Department.
For their part, NK Students4Candidates co-founder Joe Vento said all of the candidates they endorsed came from a survey conducted with the group’s then-20 members ahead of the primary. The results favored the eight combined candidates they endorsed, all of whom happened to be Democrats. The organization stressed that it was independent of other organizations at the school, such as the Student Union, and the district itself. He also added that Candidates Day is put on by the Social Studies department with questions submitted from students in grades 9-12.
“I don’t think anyone in this room, on this board, in this body wants greater participation (in local politics) more than any of the rest of us,” McKay said. “I think we want everyone to be included and most importantly, our students, who need to understand the process of fiscal reality that’s going to take place in the next few years based on the pandemic.”
All four other members of the Town Council are up for reelection, with McKay and fellow Republican Mary Brimer on a joint ticket with Zoning Board chairman Randy Wietman, Kevin Maloney running as an independent and Richard Welch running a write-in campaign as a Democrat.
“Now, I’m not sure how the other council members feel, but I feel a little betrayed and, right now, not a whole lot like being here,” McKay said. “I’ve looked at this agenda and quite honestly nothing on it can’t wait until after the election.”
McKay put the blame again on Mancini, and said he was accusing the Republicans of “boycotting” the upcoming Candidates’ Day at the high school, which the Republicans have said they will not attend over their concerns with the student group.
McKay asked for a second on his motion to adjourn, which was granted by Brimer, to open discussion on the matter and allow the other councilors to give their take.
Maloney said he was disappointed that he was not informed of the press conference and “a little bothered” that some might paint him as being against the schools.
“I’ve always been for the kids and advocating for the schools and everything and the way that (NK Students4Candidates have) chosen to endorse candidates without asking any questions and so forth, I just don’t understand it,” Maloney said, though he added he didn’t understand what this had to do with the meeting at hand.
“We don’t get elected to these seats to be pushovers and to be ‘yes’ people,” Brimer said, noting that out of the nearly 28,000 town residents, only 11 “had the courage” to run for Town Council.
“I am disappointed, heartbroken (and) hurt over what’s happened with the high school,” Brimer said. “I forgive the students, they don’t understand. We learn. Life is an evolution of learning and maturing through life’s experiences on which we base how we claim our beliefs.”
Brimer strongly opposed the usage of the Skipper by the group, and said Candidates’ Day had been “contaminated and exploited” by the NK Students4Candidates-endorsed Democrats and that exploitation, combined with the press conference, has created a further rift between the council members.
“My confidence has been waning since the budget hearing,” Brimer said. “(Mancini has) alienated all of us and it’s gotten worse by the week.”
“There’s nothing I can say that would disavow my dissatisfaction with what happened last week,” Welch said, saying he had only heard about the press conference ahead of time through Rep. Julie Casimiro (D-D31) and that only the “disciples” of Mancini had been invited, calling the action “underhanded” and something he’s never seen either party do in his over 20 years living in town.
Mancini responded, defending his record and actions while lamenting what he said was the loss of bipartisanship on the council, appearing directly to McKay and Brimer.
“Well Kerry, I think that even prior to last election, I think that we were somewhat friendly, kind of transcended politics,” Mancini said. “I think that when the council first came into office, myself and Stacey (Elliott), well really Stacey and I supported her, led the charge to create a bipartisan effort and that resulted in you becoming the President Pro Temper. I think that Mary you are right that our relationships started to deteriorate during the budget, but I think that was more based on philosophical differences.”
As for the press conference, Mancini said it was an event organized by the Secretary of State.
“It was on her stationary,” Mancini said, holding up the piece of paper. “She did the media advisory, she did the invites, not me. I didn’t think it was my responsibility and to do that and the fact of the matter is you all participated, you all were there because they did a media advisory.”
He added that while he didn’t feel like it was his responsibility to notify his fellow council members for such an event, he will do so going forward.
On NK Students4Candidates, he said the group’s formation was “completely organic” and part of a trend of growing participation in local democracy.
“The last time there was a (Town Council) primary on the Democratic side, 1300 people showed up,” Mancini said. “This year, 3000 people showed up and I think there’s a lot of activism in the Democratic Party and I think that’s fantastic.”
He said the students approached him and his fellow Five Forward NK candidates and struck back at Brimer’s accusations.
“Those kids came to us, that was all them, and they decided to do what they did and I’m proud of what they did, so we didn’t ‘use’ anybody, Mary, I resent that,” Mancini said. “That was completely organic. They did the video, they bought the signs before I knew it and I was surprised by that, quite frankly just as much as everyone else here.”
He said that while they had to vote to adjourn, he advised his fellow council members to continue on with the meeting as scheduled.
“My advice to this council would be that we should do the people’s business and let the people decide who should be here in November, but that’s your choice, not mine, because I’m only one vote,” Mancini said.
He also again defended his actions and record, saying he believed they were being misinterpreted by his opponents.
“I’m very comfortable with my actions to date,“ Mancini said. “I don’t think they were underhand at all.”
“Lastly I’ll say this,” Mancini added. “I think that I worked hard and bent over backwards from the beginning to try to create a bipartisan atmosphere and I think that it was, so to say, that I’m doing this now for my own unilateral gain is if that’s your interpretation then fine, but it’s not what happened. It’s not my responsibility.”
McKay responded to Mancini by reading the end of a letter written by a member of the Students4Candidates group.
“I hope we can have a clean remainder of the election process without any attempts to silence the voices of dedicated students who are attempting to participate in our democracy, a democracy that the Republican Party should be seeking to promote, not suppress,” McKay read from the letter.
“Now, to be scolded by a student because an adult came into the room and worked with these children is a bit disconcerting,” McKay said. “After all the time and effort after the last eight years doing the bidding of this town, helping this town along at great expense to me, because I take time out of work, I find it a little disconcerting to say the least that these young people would decide that only Democratic candidates, before the Candidates’ Day discussion takes place, so apparently the indoctrination is taking place already with these students and/or their parents, and they should be calling out the Republican Party specifically for suppressing information. I don’t care for that at all.”
McKay said the press conference wasn’t the first time he and other members hadn’t been informed of events in town, and said he believed it was done so purposefully.
“I believe at this point forward that most people had to have prior knowledge of this event,” McKay said. “It was orchestrated, it was planned (and) facilities were used in our town, so right now I, like the rest of you, am sick of what’s going on. I don’t want any other formats to be had, and if I’ve got a second on this and a vote on this right now, I’d walk right out of here and wouldn’t come back until after the election’s over. That’s how upset I am about that.”
Mancini told McKay he already had a second on the vote from earlier and that he could proceed if he wanted on the vote to adjourn, with Town Clerk Jeannette Alyward adding they would also have to take a vote to continue all items on the agenda to the next meeting, which McKay said he would do after the vote to adjourn.
The Town Council voted 3-2 to adjourn, with Mancini and Maloney in opposition, while they voted unanimously to table the agenda to the next meeting.
The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for Nov. 16, while the General Election is on Nov. 3.