Island community pushes back
Residents, visitors, and even summer workers turned out in great numbers at Town Hall on Thursday, August 11 for a special Town Council meeting on “the incidents that occurred on August 8, 2022 that required a police response.”
Of course, that was the now infamous and national story about fighting at the Reggae Fest at Ballard’s Beach Resort and on the ferry back to the mainland later that evening on Victory Day. The Town Council chamber at Town Hall, which has a capacity of 47 was overflowing, with the doors opened out to the front to accommodate the crowd. Although a few dozen chairs were placed outside, dozens more stood in the back to hear what was going on inside.
Cameras and reporters from all three of the major networks’ local news affiliates were in the room. Those who wished to speak signed up on a clipboard that, throughout the evening was circulated both indoors and outside for people to add their names.
The meeting started with the Town Council voting to go into closed session to be briefed by police on the incidents. When,45 minutes later, they came back, First Warden André Boudreau told the crowd that he had spent hours reviewing emails, texts, and videos about the incidents, and that despite everyone’s frustrations, it was “important that everyone knows the process the Town Council has to adhere to.”
One of those was the open meetings act whereby meetings are required to be advertised on the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s website at least 48 hours in advance, which Boudreau asked town solicitor James Callaghan to explain.
Callaghan said they “were going through the process of an investigation... and hopefully we will have a show cause hearing in the next seven to 10 days where we can present evidence to the Town Council.” He added that the timing also includes providing notice to the people who are the subject of a show cause hearing.
“The commentary we’ve gotten has been extraordinary and consistent,” said Councilor Keith Stover. He said that Interim Police Chief Peter Chabot had done an excellent job investigating. “These are crossroads moments,” said Stover. “It seems clear to me we have...to have a show cause hearing on Ballard’s liquor and outdoor entertainment licenses.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
Stover also said they would be requesting a list of “call outs” from police, fire and rescue and the Medical Center – to the extent that the Medical Center could respond, from May 1 to the current date.
At first, Stover’s motion stated that the show cause hearing should be “at the earliest possible date,” but Second Warden Sven Risom said he wanted to set an actual date, and Monday, August 22 was proposed.
So, with a motion on the table, Boudreau opened up the meeting for comments from the public and for most of the next two hours, people commented, questioned, and shared lived experiences. One young womansaid she had gone to the festival and “we hopped the fence.” With the number of people there she said: “It looked like a perfect place for a disaster to happen.” So, they left.
A summer waitress from Rebecca’s takeout said “The amount of over-served people from Ballard’s is ridiculous,” and that they often have young girls “pass out in the garden,” from over-drinking at the beach resort,
readily admitting they were only 18 and not old enough to drink but were served anyway.
Boudreau urged people who might have directly witnessed incidents that day, or other days to come forward and perhaps volunteer to be at the show cause hearing. Real evidence was needed, not just anecdotes and hearsay, he said.
He, and Callaghan stressed that the hearing on Monday, August 22, would be like a “mini trial,” and the public would not be allowed to speak or comment. Only selected witnesses would be called.
Some people questioned the capacity of the building, figuring there were probably 3,000 people at the festival, and doubting the building was approved for a crowd that size.
Boudreau said that a state fire marshal
and the Block Island Fire Chief were down at Ballard’s that same day taking measurements and making calculations to see how many people the building could hold.
Many people simply expressed their concerns about the impact of the story on the reputation of Block Island and whether there would be repercussions.
John Willis, the first member of the public to speak said we now “have a bad reputation across the country.”
Brian Baker, a resident from Connecticut who has a home on the island said “I was sickened by what I saw the other night.”
Wedding photographer Eli Holmes said “I have already seen consequences from this event,” explaining that one of her clients had called wondering if her event should be canceled.
“Our community is being destroyed,” said Fred Leeder. “You want to know what’s going on downtown? Ask a cabbie. Eighty percent of the people getting off the boat go to Ballard’s.” In response to someone’s suggestion that the Town Council be “fired and the state police run the town,” Leeder said: “You may not agree with the Town Council, but they need our support.”
Summer resident Lisa Lourie said “To me, they’re intertwined,” referring to Ballard’s and Interstate Navigation. She said that the ferries were “grossly overloaded” and “virtually unusable on Sunday evenings.” Further, she had seen too many people driving around on mopeds, clearly drunk. “What is the capacity of this island? What is the capacity of the ferry?”
Regarding the ferry, Boudreau said “We don’t have answers, but at a future meeting we will have representatives from the ferry.”
Only one person spoke in support – somewhat – of Ballard’s. Steve Brunelle, a summer visitor for many years said “Not all the drunkenness comes from Ballard’s.” Regarding trash and liquor he said “It’s everywhere.”
One of the last people to get up and speak, somewhat ending the session on a positive note, was Martin Rosato. He and partner Irene Hopkins went down to the beach south of Ballard’s the next morning to pick up trash. There they encountered a “couple of young men who were [also] picking up trash.” He thought it might be helpful to form a group of volunteers that could act as “meet and greet” ambassadors for visitors.
“There is good out there, we just have to find it,” said Rosato.