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Judge rules that the Central Falls council may meet

July 23, 2011

PROVIDENCE (AP) — A Rhode Island Superior Court judge has ruled that the Central Falls City Council can convene to advise the state-appointed receiver overseeing the city's troubled finances but must pay expenses related to the monthslong legal battle.
Judge Michael Silverstein said in a ruling Friday that receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr. was within his authority to prevent the council from convening earlier this year by declining to make the City Clerk available to record the meeting. But he said newly enacted state legislation amending the receiver law gives the council the authority to meet to give Flanders advice on the city's operation. That applies, he said, even if the advice is not sought.
Silverstein also ruled that Mayor Charles Moreau and the council are responsible for paying their own legal expenses — and the receiver's — incurred during a protracted fight over the receiver law and what role the city's elected officials can play in the city. Those expenses are likely to be tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.
Silverstein said the council does not have the authority to hire an attorney because council members have been relegated to advisers. He also said Moreau had exceeded his authority and must now "accept responsibility for the consequences of his own choices" in pursuing legal action. Moreau was stripped of his duties last fall when the state took over the city's finances; he also was demoted to an adviser.
"They're essentially punishing these people for being elected," Lawrence Goldberg, an attorney representing four of the five council members, said of Silverstein's decision. He called the council members "just regular working people" and said he is considering appealing the ruling.
Michael Kelly, who represents Moreau, did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment. Moreau called the ruling "nonsense" and said it sends a terrible message.
Central Falls, a city of 19,000 people, is on the brink of bankruptcy, facing $80 million in unfunded pension and benefits obligations and projected deficits of about $5 million a year for the next five years. Flanders is seeking major concessions from retirees and union groups.
City Council President William Benson said Friday the council has been "trying like crazy" to advise Flanders and is planning to soon hold its first public session in more than a year. The council has not set a date for that meeting nor released an agenda.
Flanders has said he welcomes advice from the council and that the body should be able to meet as long as it does not interfere with the receiver's work.
Meanwhile, Moreau held a rare meeting with Flanders on Friday at City Hall. He said Flanders told him the two need to work together, and that he agreed.
"He said there's a lot that I bring to the table," Moreau said. "I think working together, at the end of the day ... the city's going to be better off at the end."
He predicted that the police and fire department retirees would not accept a proposal by Flanders under which some would see their pensions cut nearly in half. If the retirees don't go along, Flanders has said, bankruptcy is much more likely.
"Unfortunately, some of the cuts are too drastic for some of the retirees," Moreau said.
He thinks the city should have sought federal bankruptcy protection under Chapter 9 long ago.
"Chapter 9 is the only way to go to alleviate some debt and some problems," he said.

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