This meant that people who lived there but weren’t on their house deeds couldn’t vote in firefighter elections, while people who owned 16-square-foot cabins but lived elsewhere could vote. Residents had already won in another part of the case when state Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter ruled in January that barring nonresidents from voting was unconstitutional. The settlement gives all adult citizens residing in the fire district who are registered within 30 days of an election the opportunity to vote, whether they own property or not.
Melissa Jenkins, who sued after being denied the right to vote because she was not on an act, said she will continue to monitor the operations of the Bonnet Shores Fire District . Now she will be able to do so with the power to vote.
“I’m glad this matter is resolved, but I still have concerns about the functions this fire district performs and the scope of what it’s trying to do as a quasi-government,” Melissa said. Jenkins. “No one is watching them at all.”
The ruling also provides an opportunity for nonresident Bonnet Shores shed owners to be kicked off the voter rolls. Under the consent agreement settling the case, Taft-Carter ruled that the Bonnet Shores Fire District had unconstitutionally diluted actual resident votes by allowing a number of non-resident homeowners to vote.
To remove nonresident owners from voter rolls, resident voters should have directly sued nonresident voters, Taft-Carter previously ruled. But the residents had not. They had just chased the firefighters.
The Fire District’s charter overhaul process may well end in the same place, as under the settlement, the Fire District will have to come up with a new charter that follows Taft-Carter’s decisions and addresses issues raised by complainants. .
The district will appoint a five-member committee to redo its charter. At least one member of the committee must be plaintiff in this case. The work of the committee will then go to the General Assembly. Then the voters in the district must approve it. Throughout the process, they must follow Taft-Carter’s decisions and resolve issues raised by complainants. (Under the settlement, Taft-Carter ruled that allowing an essentially unlimited number of nonresident cabin owners to vote in district elections diluted residents’ votes; she did not say that any the non-resident vote count would also dilute the resident votes and be unconstitutional.)
Oliverio, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said there are a number of safety nets to ensure the fire district gets it right when it comes up with a new charter, including approving the General Assembly.
Of Bonnet Shores’ 2,029 taxable properties, 930 of them are cabins, with nearly 5,000 co-owners, according to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. And of those, 827 listed owners’ mailing addresses outside of Bonnet Shores. Under Bonnet Shores voting rules, they had one vote, giving them a grip on these hyper-local policies.
The lawsuit, brought by a resident who was unable to vote in district elections because she was not listed on the deed — Jenkins — and six landlords who objected to cabin owners voting, was first filed in March 2020. the question of whether the fire district was a government entity subject to one-person-one-vote rules, or rather a condominium association.
Taft-Carter ruled in January that it was indeed a government entity subject to the rules of one person, one vote. In addition to taxing powers, Bonnet Shores has parking regulations, an anti-littering ordinance, prohibitions on engaging in sporting activities on beaches without a permit, and a dog leash ordinance. It is governed by an elected council.
That meant the district could not prevent adult residents who did not own property from voting, Taft-Carter ruled in January.
No money, except for legal fees for residents who sued, will change hands in the settlement that now ends the case and kicks off reform in Bonnet Shores.
In a statement, the Bonnet Shores Fire District Council explained its understanding of the decision and added, “This council is committed to following the laws of the State of RI.”
Rhode Island has several fire districts in coastal enclaves that do not directly fight fires or contract with other fire departments for this service. These are only fire districts in name and can face similar challenges.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island filed a brief in the Bonnet Shores case challenging the “absurdity and irrationality” of the district’s voting rules.
“The fire district’s long-standing archaic ownership requirement deserves its place in the dustbin of history,” Steven Brown, the organization’s executive director, said in an email on Tuesday. “At the same time, we are aware that a handful of other fire districts have similar inappropriate voting restrictions in their charters. We will follow up with these districts to ensure that no Rhode Islander is ever denied the right to vote again because they do not own property.