Town Council denies Filippi’s re-appointment to Tourism Council

Wed, 01/19/2022 - 7:30am

The Town Council held its annual joint meeting with the Tourism Council on January 5, and when the topic of board dynamics was broached, the sparks began to fly. Executive Director Jessica Willi told the council that the board was dealing with a very stressful situation, and it had been
hard to get enough members together to form a quorum.
Council Member Martha Ball jumped right to the part of the matter that bothered her the most: the hiring by the Tourism Council of attorney Robert Goldberg. Stating that Goldberg had been in “an adversarial position” to the town as the attorney for Champlin’s Marina since 2002, Ball questioned how and why the Tourism Council would hire him.
Willi responded that the members of the Tourism Council had received an access to public records request, and when she approached Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla for advice, she was told that the town’s attorney was “not touching that with a ten-foot pole,” and that she was “on her
own.” Willi said she asked other tourism boards in the state for advice on where to turn for legal advice, and Goldberg was recommended.
Tourism Council member and former president, Steven Filippi, addressed the Town Council, saying he had never been a part of hiring Goldberg, as he had his own reputation to protect. Filippi said he had initiated the investigation into his fellow council members after “a meeting happened that was unlawful.” He said the Attorney General’s office had become involved and that the Tourism Council had “stonewalled” the investigation. He voiced his opinion that people who broke the law “shouldn’t be on this board.”

The “unlawful” meeting allegedly occurred in the summer of 2020, after Filippi was interviewed by WJAR-Channel 10 and reported that the island was “fully open for business.” Filippi provided a letter to The Block Island Times last summer, that he says he received by email shortly
after the television interview in 2020. The letter, signed with the first names of several Tourism Council members, calls on him to resign as president of the Tourism Council, and has been used as evidence of a secret and unlawful meeting taking place. The Tourism Council has denied any wrongdoing.
Ball brought the conversation back to her talking point, saying she was “stunned” that the Tourism Council didn’t know who Goldberg was. “Nobody on your board thought this was a red flag?” she asked.
Council Member Mark Emmanuelle also asked if anyone on the Tourism Board had “raised that question.”
Willi told the council that in addition to turning over emails as requested, the Tourism Council had turned over their private electronic devices as well.
Ball again said her only question was regarding the “propriety” of hiring Goldberg.

Second Warden Sven Risom agreed, saying he would have “made another choice,” but he pointed out that “you can’t back up now.”

Tourism Council member John Cullen also said he had been told “no” by the town’s attorney when he asked for legal advice. He reiterated Willi’s assertion that it was hard for the board to function when one member of the board keeps “threatening us with litigation.”
Ball again said her sole question was about the hiring of Goldberg, “who is in conflict with so many groups in this town.”

Tourism Council Member Logan Mott Chase suggested that the town should reconsider how it supports the people who are volunteering
to serve on the various boards.
First Warden André Boudreau agreed, saying that the Tourism Council was told “no” by the town’s attorney, and was given no further guidance. Risom said there should be some sort of process, or an approved list of attorneys.

On January 10, the Tourism Council was again before the Town Council, as there were three members up for re-appointment, Julie Fuller, David Houseman, and Steven Filippi, and one member, Zena Clark, stepping down. When asked, Boudreau confirmed that the council was making four appointments, and that it was not required to re-appoint someone just because they asked. There were also several new people
who had requested to be appointed to the Tourism Council. The Town Council decided that each councilor would pick four names to fill the four positions, and the top four names would be the appointees.
After the votes were cast, Julie Fuller and David Houseman were re-appointed, and Thea Monje and Neal Murphy were appointed as new members. The changes took place immediately, with the new members attending the January 11 meeting of the Tourism Council.