Police officers file suit against the town (UPDATED)

Wed, 10/16/2019 - 2:15pm
Category: 

UPDATE: Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft Carter ruled this morning, Wednesday, Oct. 16, against the temporary restraining order petitioned by the plaintiffs that would have halted construction of the single family home on the Thomas Property.

“We had a hearing, a consolidated hearing of the police case and the Cathy Payne case, against the town that was seeking a temporary restraining order on construction of the single family house on the Thomas Property until the plaintiffs contentions could be sorted out,” said the attorney for the defendants, Bill Landry. “The judge found that, at least based on what she understood about the case at this early stage, there was not any imminent or irreparable harm by the continued construction of that building.”

Landry said the next hearing in the case will be heard on Monday, Oct. 21 to consolidate the cases filed by five members of the New Shoreham Police Department. Payne is also seeking to block the construction of the single family dwelling.

This is a developing story. Please see this week’s edition of The Block Island Times.

***

The following story was published in the Oct. 12 edition of the paper:

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. The officers have also filed a restraining order against the defendants that asks the court to prevent the defendants from handling any funds associated with the Connolly estate or to to move ahead with any construction at the Thomas Property, which is central to the issues contained in the lawsuit. A hearing on the restraining order was continued until Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 9:30 a.m.

An amended version of the suit, which names Lt. Paul Deane, Sgt. Joseph DeMatteo, Cpl. Chris Rich, Officer Thomas Pennell, and 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 Connolly estate in any capacity.

In addition, the plaintiffs have 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 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 irreparable 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.”

“This matter has been turned over to legal counsel for review and action. 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, 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... She was aware that the New Shoreham Police Officers had, and still have, to pay exorbitant rates for fair housing on Block island due to summer tourism and the market value for residential rental real estate. Violette sought — as her dying wish — to find a way to alleviate this financial stress placed on these officers who sacrificed themselves and served to protect her and the community.”

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 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.” According to the complaint, “the personal contents of the White House and the barn were to be donated to the Block Island Historical Society, a charitable organization, in accordance with the Decree of the Probate Court and Town.”

Prior to her death, according to the complaint, Connolly 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

The real estate acquired turned out to be the parcel located across the street from the Block Island School known as the Thomas Property.

The sale of the property to the town was voted on at a special financial town meeting 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 Health Services, Inc. The property was sold to the town for $725,000 on Jan. 31, 2012. According to the lawsuit, the town then took a vote to contribute $240,000 to Connolly’s Charitable Trust at that Town Meeting. That $240,000 “was required to purchase and improve the Thomas Property. It was explained that rents would pay for the ‘indebtedness,’ and that there would be funds in excess. Notwithstanding there were no financial projections and no discussions with the police officers as to what they could afford to pay for rent, the town made the unsubstantiated representations regarding finance and acquisition.”

The $240,000 contribution, plus the remaining $540,000 in Connolly’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.” 

As for the sale of the property and the purchase of the Thomas Property, “At no point did the Petitioners or the Town take into account or reference the interest of the actual beneficiaries, the New Shoreham Police Officers, nor did they give notice to the New Shoreham Police Officers of any court hearings,” the suit states.

Peter Neronha involvement

According to the lawsuit, the town did notify the state attorney general “in its capacity as an administrator of charitable trusts… The attorney general filed an Objection… stating that the Joint Petition was inconsistent with the intent of Violette. The attorney general, citing the unambiguous one sentence from Violette’s will, set forth that the express intent under Violette’s will that a trust be created for the benefit of Police Officers of New Shoreham was being violated…”

On Dec. 5, 2011, according to the lawsuit, “[T]he attorney general, as the administer of charitable trusts, withdrew its objection and consented to an order that would allow exactly what his objection sought to avoid.”

The lawsuit describes the steps taken by the town to acquire the Thomas Property a “fraudulent scheme.”

Use of the Thomas Property

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 ask 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.”

“Mistakes were made in the procedure,” said Lt. Paul Deane. “Fix the mistakes and move on.”