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Council hosts receivership detractor

April 22, 2012

WOONSOCKET — A Cumberland lawyer who fought the state law that allowed Central Falls to enter receivership will be a guest of the City Council tonight.
With so much talk in the air advocating receivership for Woonsocket, officials are hoping Michael Kelly can provide some balance, said Councilman Albert G. Brien.
“He was very much involved in Central Falls and I was hoping we might be able to glean whether his experience there could be helpful to us as we debate the pros and cons of this issue,” said Brien, a staunch detractor of receivership.
The invite comes just three days before Central Falls receiver Robert J. Flanders Jr. is due to address the Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition at the Elks Club. Flanders has publicly advocated municipal receivership for communities threatened with insolvency because of labor agreements and contracts that are usually protected, excepted in a receivership-driven bankruptcy action.
The catalyst for the debate is a $10 million deficit in the Woonsocket Education Department which has left the city on track to run out of cash by mid-May, officials say. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and members of the City Council have embraced the idea of a supplemental tax bill to bring in the vital revenue needed to keep the city afloat.
But most members of the city’s legislative delegation have expressed misgivings about their willingness to support the necessary enabling legislation to issue the bills, leaving the city in fiscal limbo.
Brien said he came up with the idea of inviting Kelly to speak to the council before he knew Flanders was coming to town.
Nevertheless, Council President John F. Ward said it would have been fitting for the council to hear both sides of the receivership story at the same time, so he invited Flanders to address the council the same night as Kelly.
“I never got a response,” said Ward.
Kelly has a well-known reputation as a land-use expert who has been involved in some high-profile legal battles as an advocate for real estate developers.
But in the summer of 2011 he filed suit on behalf of Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau, challenging the constitutionality of a new law that allowed the state to put retired Superior Court Judge Mark Pfeiffer in control of the city’s finances, essentially deposing Moreau. During hearings on the issue, Kelly argued that a court-appointed receiver violates the constitutional rights of city residents to choose leaders at the ballot box.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the receivership law.
Gov. Chafee later replaced Pfeiffer with Flanders, who used his power as receiver to push Central Falls into Chapter 9 bankruptcy in federal court. Flanders has since gone on an oft-criticized cutting spree, attacking compensation packages and pensions of Central Falls workers and retirees, selling off landmark properties and rolling back services.
Kelly’s briefing is the second item on the agenda of a council work session in the conference room on the second floor of City Hall, set to begin at 6:30 p.m.
The first is a status update on a lawsuit challenging the state’s funding formula for education, in which Pawtucket and Woonsocket are co-plaintiffs.
A hearing is scheduled to take place tomorrow before Associate Superior Court Justice Netti Vogel on the state’s motion to dismiss the suit. The two financially distressed cities argue in the suit that a chief cause of their fiscal woes is that the state reimburses them comparatively less for educating public school students than other communities receive to underwrite their schooling costs, depriving students of their constitutionally-guaranteed right to an equal education.

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