RICHMOND TOWN COUNCIL MEETING August 17th
Council Discusses Performance of Town Solicitor
By Cynthia Drummond for BRVCA
RICHMOND — Members of the Town Council spent more than an hour of the August 17 meeting considering the job performance of Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth and complaints made against her by council President Nell Carpenter. While discussions of job performance are usually conducted in executive session, Ellsworth had requested that the discussion of her job performance be conducted during the open council meeting.
Carpenter took issue with learning about complaints regarding possible violations by the council of the Open Meetings Act from a post on the internet, rather than from Ellsworth herself.
Council member Richard Nassaney has filed two complaints under the Open Meetings Act and a resident, Lucas Marland, has filed a single complaint, following previous, hybrid council meetings during which the audio was not functioning and council members could not be clearly heard by those watching on their computers.
"The council was made aware of three formal complaints under investigation by the Rhode Island Attorney General's office, from a social media post on July 27th, a piece in which the solicitor offered an opinion and comments regarding the response that had been submitted on behalf of the Richmond Town Council, unbeknownst to the Richmond Town Council," Carpenter said.
Citing American Bar Association regulations regarding the obligation of attorneys to consult with their clients, inform them promptly and obtain the client's consent before taking action, Carpenter, who appeared to have the backing of a single council member, Lauren Cacciola, said she believed that Ellsworth had withheld information from the council.
"I believe the solicitor had a duty to officially inform both the clerk and all public bodies of these complaints versus withhold. I believe she did not represent the best interests of the town in withholding information."
Ellsworth, (a member of the Rhode Island Bar but not the American Bar) responded that she believed the issue was how she had responded to the complaints
"I think what this is really about is not whether I withheld information from you, but how I responded to the Attorney General," Ellsworth said. "I think that you wanted me to say that there was no Open Meetings Act violation and I don't see how I could have possibly done that after sending all of you a memo saying I thought there was."
Carpenter also admonished Ellsworth for comments she made to a journalist regarding Carpenter's determination to hold hybrid rather than remote meetings, despite the lack of adequate audio equipment - an issue which has only recently been rectified.
In an interview for a story published on the Beaver River Valley Community Association Facebook page and later posted on the Richmond Community Facebook page, Ellsworth stated,
"Nell Carpenter insisted upon conducting an in-person meeting despite the fact that the audio visual equipment to enable a hybrid meeting had not yet been installed in the Town Council chambers, and despite the fact that the governor's last executive order allowing hybrid meetings was still in effect."
Carpenter said Ellsworth's comments had been inappropriate since she had not spoken first with council members.
"The comments in that social media post were based off of communications that I had not seen from my town solicitor who represents the town of Richmond," she said.
Nassaney disagreed, saying Ellsworth's comments had been posted on the association's Facebook page and only later posted on the community page.
"It may come as a personal attack, you may hear that, but it is not something that she is doing to harm us," he said. "She is doing what she needs to do to protect the town."
Longtime council member Ronnie Newman said he believed that Ellsworth had represented the town well and responded promptly to councilors' requests.
"I think we're very fortunate, because...it's like having a personal attorney. I know many town solicitors have other jobs within the legal system. I'm not sure what Karen has, but she gets right back to you and she's always answered my questions. I think her job performance has been outstanding, if not incredible," he said.
Councilor James Palmisciano, a sales enablement director at Schneider Electric, re-focused the discussion on the need for a formal job performance assessment process.
"What we're doing right now is called a performance review and I think it's fair to say, looking at my fellow members of council here, that I probably have more experience conducting performance reviews than everyone else on the council combined, having done over 100 performance reviews myself in 19 years," he said.
After reading a generic definition and scope of a performance review, Palmisciano referred to a list of litigation Ellsworth had handled for the town beginning in 1995, in which there had been only one defeat.
"It's important to mention that a performance evaluation should be judged against specific goals using clearly defined metrics," he said. "Now I know there's a lot of information that everyone at this table has said, pro and con....I am stepping back. I have taken exception to this entire conversation and I understand that, solicitor Ellsworth, that you wish to have this be a public discussion and that is your right, and I understand that, but I don't agree with that personally. ...There are many different forms of metrics that we could use to evaluate. Performance metrics can vary by industry. We don't have an evaluation form or criteria set for the solicitor, so we should use an evaluation rubric."
Palmisciano's comments concluded the discussion of Ellsworth's performance and no further action was taken.
In other business, councilors considered, but did not approve, an ordinance regulating food trucks. Ellsworth reminded the council that a town ordinance would have to comply with existing state laws.
"If we have an ordinance, it needs to be consistent with the state law and the state Department of Business Regulation and they're a little bit confusing," she said.
Ellsworth also noted that the council could exempt certain food trucks at specific locations from the new ordinance. The hearing was continued to a future meeting.
Town Administrator Karen Pinch announced that Randall Gemme had been hired to replace outgoing Emergency Management Director Joe Arsenault.
Chief of Police Elwood Johnson requested and received council approval to raise the salary of Animal Control Officer Anne Fisher, who, he said, had served the town for 25 years and was earning several thousand dollars less than her counterparts in neighboring towns.
The pay raise, Johnson said, had already been approved in the budget.
"I'm asking that we adjust her salary to increase it by $1,900 for this fiscal year without getting money from any other source but the ACO budget," he said. "There's ample funding in there."
The increases, which the council approved, will be made over three years.
Richmond Rural Presentation Land Trust Chair Suzanne Paton briefed the council on progress at the Saila Preserve. The land trust has hired the engineering firm, Horsely Witten to design an access with three parking spaces at the end of Chelsea Farm Drive. Eagle Scout candidate Aiden Pickett from Troop 44 will organize a volunteer project to build a public trail through the property.
Arsenault proposed honoring volunteers and first responders for their service during the COVID 19 pandemic and Palmisciano also proposed recognizing the town's COVID heroes with plaques and a "Richmond Covid Heroes Day" on Dec. 14 - the day the vaccine was first administered to members of the public.
Cynthia Drummond email@example.com
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