Taxpayers’ suit opposing BIPCo sale quashed

By Rhode Island Supreme Court
Fri, 03/09/2018 - 8:30am

A lawsuit against the town’s purchase of shares of the Block Island Power Company came to an end after the R.I. Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs on March 2.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled against 12 New Shoreham residents who have been contesting the Town of New Shoreham’s purchase of two-thirds shares of Block Island Power Company stock. The town purchased the shares for $1.8 million after taxpayers approved the purchase at a special Financial Town Meeting on Sept. 26, 2016.

Town Solicitor Katherine Merolla confirmed to The Block Island Times on Wednesday that the Court’s decision is the end for the lawsuit. 

The Supreme Court ruled that “cause was not shown” by the plaintiffs in their lawsuit, and they have not “suffered a particularized injury” or “concrete wrong beyond a general grievance common to all taxpayers.”  

The Supreme Court’s decision of an appeal by 12 plaintiffs, known as Christopher Warfel et al, comes after their request for an injunction was denied in Washington County Superior Court on Nov. 1, 2016. The town closed its purchase of two-thirds of the shares of BIPCo stock on Nov. 7, 2016. The plaintiffs appealed the Superior Court’s decision on Nov. 23, 2016, which brought the matter before the Supreme Court on Feb. 15, 2018.

The 12 plaintiffs are Chris Warfel, Pete Mott, Kurt Tonner, Lee David Miles, Nancy Miles, Clifton Payne, Cathy Payne, Paul Filippi, Everett Littlefield, Amelia V. Littlefield, Robert Hoey and Robert Rose. Mary Jane Balser, a plaintiff in the original suit, withdrew her name after she became a Block Island Utility District Commissioner.

Merolla told The Times that, “The Supreme Court agreed with the town’s position in ruling in favor of the town. The Court based its decision on standing, but could also have upheld the decision of the Superior Court on several other legal grounds, as discussed in the decision. Since the Supreme Court decided the case on standing, there was no need to address the other legal principles asserted in support of dismissal of the action.”

The five-member Supreme Court stated in its ruling, that it was the Court’s “opinion that the plaintiffs lack the requisite standing to bring this action. The plaintiffs have failed to convince us that they have suffered any actual or concrete wrong beyond a general grievance common to all taxpayers.”

The Court noted that: “The plaintiffs have not suffered a particularized injury,” and their assertion “that they may be held responsible for the costs of any contamination remediation” is speculative. “Unfounded anxiety, or a vague fear based on utterly speculative hypothesis is simply not enough” to warrant review of the town’s decision.

In its decision, the Court concluded that: “For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court. The record shall be remanded to that tribunal.”

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit contends that the town did not have statutory support to authorize the purchase of two-thirds of BIPCo stock for $1.8 million; town officials did not provide voters with enough time to evaluate a purchase of such complexity; BIPCo ratepayers and town taxpayers will bear the cost of contamination remediation; the town had the right to cancel the agreement after fire damaged generators and other equipment; the existence of chemicals on the property was not disclosed until four days prior to the Sept. 26, 2016 special Financial Town Meeting.