July 18, 2017 – In an unexpected move, Acting Town Manager Gayle Corrigan announced Tuesday that moving violations will no longer be heard in Municipal Court but will instead be heard by the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal. Restructuring of the court had been on the Town Council’s agenda last Monday, but that meeting was adjourned before most agenda items were heard (including Municipal Court) after it dissolved into a yelling match and the fire marshal decided there were too many people in Council Chambers.
Ordinance violations (for instance, being caught with your dog off leash), housing violations (for instance, failure to mow your lawn), and parking tickets will continue to be heard in Municipal Court, which meets twice a month at Town Hall.
“This restructure will alleviate onerous compliance of fiduciary duties associated with traffic violations and save the Town $32,000 in software upgrades,” the announcement on the town’s website reads, referring to a software purchase required by the Department of Motor Vehicles that would cost the town $11,000 this year and $7,000 in each of the next three years.
The Municipal Court first popped up on the Town Council’s agenda during the winter, including discussion of the software purchase. The council ended up voting 3-2 to retain the court.
The court ended up back on the Town Council’s agenda on June 26, this time as “restructuring of Municipal Court.” Corrigan had been on the job for 10 days at that point and this was her first council meeting. She recommended getting rid of the court entirely, citing potential cost savings, including not having to make the DMV software purchase.
But the council stopped short of voting to get rid of the court after hearing from the municipal court judge, David Bazar.
Bazar, a resident who has been the town’s municipal court judge since 2003 (he is paid $5,000 a year), noted that he had never talked to Corrigan about the court and had only heard the court was on the agenda from his clerk. He said he didn’t think the council should abolish the court based on what he called incomplete information. He said traffic violation fees are shared between the town and RITT and that income would be lost. In addition, Bazar said, police overtime would almost certainly go up because issues that are resolved in pretrial hearings at the municipal court would require a trial at RITT, a longer and more involved process.
The Town Council tabled the discussion June 26. It was placed on the agenda for the July 10 meeting.
“We wanted to have a public discussion about it,” said Council Vice President Sean Todd of why it was on the July 10 agenda. As for what changed between July 10 and now, Sean said, the acting town manager had the authority to take such actions on her own. Indeed, the press release mentions the town manager’s authority over municipal court:
“Under Chapter 72, § 72-18 of the Code of Ordinances, Municipal Court ‘shall be administered by the Town Manager. All matters of administration shall be the sole responsibility and in the sole jurisdiction of the Town Manager.’ The provision also gives the Town Manager authority to determine which cases will be heard in Municipal Court.”
It may have been Judge Bazar that alerted Corrigan to that clause in the municipal code. He said they finally spoke by phone for the first time on July 11, one day after the aborted Town Council meeting.
“When Gayle called me, I said I don’t think you have all the correct information,” Bazar said Tuesday (7/18/17). He said Corrigan mentioned the time crunch – the need to have the new software by Aug. 1.
“I suggested she could temporarily move the moving traffic violations over to the RITT while we could gather information,” Bazar said. He told her the town manager was administrator of the court so she could just make that move.
It’s unclear whether the move made Tuesday was temporary or permanent. The press release makes no mention of the action being temporary. Attempts to reach Corrigan were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Council President Sue Cienki, via text, said, “The Council always has the possibility to move the traffic violations back to East Greenwich…. This move buys us time.”
“We have municipal court status through the state and I don’t think that goes away,” said Councilman Mark Schwager.
Corrigan, in the press release, cited the low numbers of East Greenwich residents who are served by Municipal Court.
“Last year, the Town of East Greenwich issued 851 moving traffic violations. Of these, only 182 (21%) were issued to East Greenwich residents. More than half of tickets issued were paid without a court hearing. Municipal Court heard 380 moving traffic cases last year. Of those, 16% were dismissed by the East Greenwich Police Department; 55% were dismissed with a good driving record, a procedure that is also in place at the RI Traffic Tribunal; 17% were dismissed with inspection; and 7% were dismissed with community service—only 1/3 of the community service dismissals (8 out of 24) were given to East Greenwich residents.”
Judge Bazar, who heard about the decision from a reporter, said Tuesday, “Even if it’s only 8 out of 24 EG residents getting community service, that’s 112 EG kids who may have learned a lesson that’s helpful to them” during Bazar’s term.
The agenda for the meeting July 24 has not yet been posted.
– Elizabeth F. McNamara