New Shoreham police officers file suit against town

Tue, 10/08/2019 - 10:45am
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UPDATE: The law office of Indeglia & Associates informed The Block Island Times on Tuesday, Oct. 8 that the motion to issue a temporary restraining order against the defendants has been continued until Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 9:30 a.m. in Washington County Superior Court. See details below.

Five members of the New Shoreham Police Department have filed suit against a wide variety of town officials and board members claiming that the will of the late Violette Connolly that stipulated property she left to the town be used to “provide year-round rental housing to Block Island police officers” has been violated.

An amended version of the suit, which names Lt. Paul Deane, Sgt. Joseph DeMatteo, Cpl. Chris Rich, Officer Thomas Pennell, Officer Steve Land, as plaintiffs, was filed in Rhode Island Superior Court on Monday, Oct. 7.

The number of defendants in the suit includes all five members of the Town Council, Deputy Town Clerk Millie McGinnes, who is the Executrix of Connolly’s last will and testament, all seven members of the Planning Board, including Chair Margie Comings, all seven members of the Zoning Board of Review, including Chair Elizabeth Connor, Town Manager Ed Roberge, Attorney General Peter Neronha, former Town Manager Nancy Dodge and up to 10 as-yet-unnamed individuals who may have handled paperwork or taxes for the Connelly estate in any capacity.

In addition, the plaintiffs have also filed a temporary restraining order against all the defendants to bar them “from handling money, leases, funds, property or any assets of the Violette Connolly Trust created under Violette M. Connolly’s Last Will and Testament and from having access to or causing any alteration or construction at the property located at Assessors Plat 8, Lot 218 in the Town of New Shoreham, State of Rhode Island.” That restraining order was also filed on Monday, Oct. 7 in Superior Court. That lot is commonly referred to as the Thomas Property.

The issue of the restraining order will be heard in Superior Court today, Oct. 8, at 1:45 p.m., according to the law office of Indeglia & Associates, which is representing the plaintiffs.

The amended lawsuit states that “due to the acts and omissions by the defendants to date, and the fact that the town has already initiated construction at the Thomas Property, there is a substantial risk of irreperable harm if the restraining order is not granted.”

The Thomas Property, on which sits a small ranch-style duplex, is located across from the Block Island School. That site is also the location of a proposed single family dwelling for a senior town official, and a proposed second unit designed for use by various town employees. Pre-fabricated units for the proposed single family home are currently sitting on the property.

First Warden Ken Lacoste issued the following statement Monday night:

“We have received a copy of a complaint from a law office allegedly representing our five full time year round police officers and the Police Chief. The Police Chief was removed from the case this afternoon.”

“The complaint lists as defendants the Town Council, Millicent McGinnes as Town Clerk and Executrix, certain members of the Planning and Zoning Boards, Town Manager Ed Roberge, Attorney General Peter Neronha, former Town Manager Nancy Dodge and "parties to be named later." None of the Town defendants have been formally served with the complaint.”

“The complaint refers to the Last Will and Testament of Violette M. Connolly.”

“A ‘story’ was printed about this in yesterday’s Providence Journal.”

“While we find this legal action disappointing and question the veracity of many of the allegations in the Complaint and in the article, this matter has been turned over to legal counsel for review and action, we will have no further comment pending the outcome of the legal process.”

Violette Connolly’s intent

According to the lawsuit, “Violette M. Connolly took notice of the plight and unfair housing conditions attendant upon the New Shoreham Police Officers and, as a result, she bequeathed a gift to the New Shoreham Police Officers through a testamentary charitable trust.”

The property she left, one formerly known as the White House, as well as its barns, was located on Spring Street. According to her will, which was filed on January 9, 2007, the the town could operate the White House as a museum or bed and breakfast, and “the barns on the White House… to be used to provide year-round housing to Block Island police officers.”

Prior to her death, according to the complaint, Connelly became ill and incurred medical debts in excess of $30,000. “She was without liquid assets to pay this cost of residing in the nursing facility,” the complaint states.

As a result, the White House and barns were put up for sale on Oct. 6, 2008, and eventually sold for $875,000 “and the funds from the sale were used by the Guardian to support Violette M. Connolly for the remainder of her life,” according to the complaint.

Connolly’s estate at the time of her death consisted of personal assets in the amount of $601,672, which was to be used to “acquire real estate to be used for the intended purpose set out in the Last Will and Testament… for the benefit of the New Shoreham Police officers, to provide year-round reduced housing cost,” the complaint states.

The Thomas Property acquisition

A Town Meeting was held on Oct. 11, 2011, at which the town entered a purchase and sales agreement for the purchase of the Thomas Property from the Block Island Medical Services, Inc. The property was sold to the town for $725,000 on Jan. 31, 2012. According to the lawsuit, the town was to contribute $240,000 to Connelly’s Charitable Trust by a vote at that Town Meeting. That contribution, plus the remaining $540,000 in Connelly’s Charitable Trust, was to enable “the Charitable Trust... to purchase the Thomas Property,” according to the lawsuit. “The purchase of the Thomas Property was for the purpose of providing two (2) existing units on the Thomas Property to the New Shoreham Police Officers, consistent with Violette M. Connolly’s bequeath in her testamentary trust.” 

According to the complaint, the intended use of the Thomas Property changed earlier this year. The complaint states that the town filed a Development Plan Review Application with the Planning Board on Jan. 2, 2019, which included plans for the $1.5 million single family dwelling. The complaint also states that various parties that should have been notified about the application, including the Rhode Island Attorney General “as Administrator of the Charitable Trust,” were not notified about the application.

Accordingly, the complaint states, “the town is in violation of the wishes and intent of Violette Connolly. The use of the single-family home is not for the benefit of the New Shoreham Police Officers, but for the sole benefit of the Town Manager, Ed Roberge.”

The plaintiffs asks the court to “enter Judgement in their favor and appoint a new trustee and administrator to carry out the intent of Violette M. Connolly, which is to provide reduced rental housing for the benefit of the New Shoreham Police Officers, and for damages proven at the time of trial herein.”

One of the counts contained in the lawsuit maintains that “No New Shoreham Police Officer has ever been offered the opportunity to rent a rental unit at the Thomas Property.”

This is a developing story. See Friday’s edition of The Block Island Times.