Raptakis On Fire District Merger: General Assembly Won't Pass If Divisive
State Senate colleague Dawson Hodgson strongly disagrees.
State Sen. Lou Raptakis told the Town Council and Fire District commissioners Monday night that resolutions where there's disagreement between the parties fail "99 percent" of the time in General Assembly, breathing fresh life into some of the EGFD commissioners' hopes to be able to remain independent.
That was after about 45 minutes of heated debate over whether or not voters understood that the referendum they passed in November – to merge the Fire District with the town – would actually come to pass without another townwide vote. For video from the meeting, click here.
East Greenwich state legislators attended a joint meeting of the Town Council and the EG Fire District to discuss legislation the Council is drafting to create a municipal fire department and abolish the fire district. Three of the five Fire District Commissioners oppose the merger.
State Senate colleague Dawson Hodgson (R-EG, NK, SK, Narr.) strongly disagreed with Raptakis's assessment, arguing that the election results – in which two thirds of EG voters said in November they thought the Fire District should merge with the town – would be the General Assembly's guiding principle.
Raptakis (D-Coventry, EG, WW) defended his position, but was not able to name a specific example to illustrate his contention.
The Town Council will vote this coming Monday on the bill to submit to EG state legislators. Four of the five councilors are in favor of the merger; Michael Kiernan is opposed.
Kiernan made his position very clear Monday night, reiterating several times he'd seen nothing that showed folding the Fire District into the town would save money. In fact, he said, the only study he'd seen – done by the Fire District – suggested there were no savings to be had.
Early on in the proceedings, Fire Commissioner Bill Daly again said the legislation should include a reference to the fact that voters were told they were voting on a non-binding referendum.
That tried the patience of Town Council President Michael Isaacs. He read outloud the resolution* that was on the ballot in November, noting there was no mention of it being non-binding.
"Nowhere does that say, 'This is a nonbinding vote so if you want to vote for it, this totally is meaningless.' I’ve said this every single time we have met," Isaacs said in frustration. "It was nonbinding because we wanted the voters to understand that only the General Assembly had the authority to make this happen."
He said he would not support adding additional language to the bill.
"I’m sorry," said Isaacs, "but I really think that interjecting that adds nothing to the legislation, confuses the issue, and I know that you’re angling to try to get support for a way to challenge this and to go up to the legislature and argue before the committee that they should disregard the vote of the populace in the referendum. I’m not going to put that language in here because I think it’s irrelevant. People voted because they wanted to see this happen."
Afterwards, Raptakis emphasized that the legislation had several more votes to pass to become law. A Town Council approval will allow the state legislators – Anthony Giarrusso in the House and Hodgson and Raptakis in the Senate – to introduce the bill. From there it would go to the Municipal Government committee, where again it would have to pass a vote to come to the floor of the General Assembly and a vote there. Even if it passes all that, the governor would have to sign it into law.
If the committee takes it up, there will be a public hearing, at which time people from both sides could testify.
According to Raptakis, the two-to-one passage in East Greenwich is "evidence" on the Town Council's side, but it doesn't make it a slam dunk.
*The language of the resolution: ‘Merge the East Greenwich Fire District into the Town of East Greenwich. Some Rhode Island cities and towns maintain their own municipal fire departments while others are served by independent fire districts. East Greenwich is served by the East Greenwich Fire District, which is separate from the Town of East Greenwich. Are you in favor of merging the East Greenwich Fire District into the Town of East Greenwich, the result of which would be that the Town would maintain a municipal fire department and the separate fire district would cease to exist?'