Town Councilor Willi fined for ethics violation

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 9:45am

The Rhode Island Ethics Commission determined that New Shoreham Town Councilor Chris Willi was in violation of Rhode Island General Laws, and levied a civil penalty amount of $1,250. Per the Ethics Commission’s findings, Willi violated Rhode Island General Laws by representing “his own interests” at a May 17 Town Council meeting.

Willi told The Block Island Times that he paid the fine, and that “the Ethics investigation found just cause that I appeared in front of my board by submitting a letter, therefore violating ethics rules.” He also said, “I was given the option to settle or argue my case in front of the Ethics Commission, something that would take time and money. I have better things to spend my time and money on.”

“Mr. Willi and the Ethics Commission entered into a settlement, whereby Mr. Willi admitted to a violation of the Code of Ethics and agreed to pay a civil penalty in the amount of $1,250,” said Jason Gramitt, Staff Attorney and Education Coordinator of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.  

First Warden Ken Lacoste said he “will not speculate as to what action, if any, the Town Council might take regarding Councilman Willi’s recent settlement with the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.”

The Sept. 26 Order of the Ethics Commission stated: “In his private capacity, (Willi) is the owner of Block Island Fishworks LLC, a retail tackle shop and fishing charter business. By submitting a letter to the New Shoreham Town Council, the public body of which he is a member, arguing for the disqualification of the first person on the charter slip waiting list, (Willi) represented his own interests in violation of Rhode Island General Laws.”

The Commission’s settlement noted that Willi’s letter was placed as an item “on the Town Council’s May 17, 2017 agenda and was discussed and voted on. (Willi) recused from participating in the Council’s discussion of a vote on his letter and exited the room during said discussion and vote. (Willi) was, at all relevant times, a municipal elected official subject to the Rhode Island Code of Ethics in Government, pursuant to Rhode Island General Laws.”

Ethics complaints against Willi were filed by two New Shoreham Harbors Committee members n June of 2017: New York resident Erik Elwell and Block Island resident Robert Littlefield. The complaints noted that Willi submitted a letter to the Town Council dated April 28 seeking disqualification of Charles Gustafson from his charter slip at Old Harbor due to residency requirements. The disqualification of Gustafson would have led to Rob Closter being elevated to the top spot on the waiting list, with Willi moving up to the second spot. 

Littlefield wrote in his complaint that Willi referenced Gustafson’s Connecticut address in the letter, and was “Assistant Harbormaster” in Sept. of 2007 when he approved Gustafson “onto the waiting list.” Littlefield noted that Willi “was terminated by the town as Harbormaster” for violating the state’s Code of Ethics for “manipulation of the Old Harbor charter slip waiting list.”

Elwell’s complaint noted that Willi violated the state’s Code of Ethics by “using his position as a Town Council member to have his issue put on the Town Council (May 17) agenda” and have Council members hear and decide on an issue that would directly benefit him.

Willi told The Times that he “was not terminated” as Harbormaster by the town as Littlefield claimed, and the Rhode Island Labor Board ruled that his “forced resignation was not necessarily justified.” Willi said he “was directed by the Town Manager to accept (Gustafson’s) application since there is no waiting list policy for charter slips.” 

Willi called the current violation a “rookie mistake,” and accepts blame in not seeking an advisory opinion prior to submitting his letter to the Town Council, which he said he did per the “recommendation” of the Interim Town Manager. 

“I take my job on the (Town) Council seriously,” Willi said. “It is part of the Town Council’s job to make policy and we have a duty to the taxpayer to make sure policies are adhered to and enforced.”

Interim Town Manager Shirlyne Gobern told The Times she “doesn’t recall” making the recommendation to Willi to submit the letter. “The Town Council sets policy, and if someone was aggrieved with a decision that I made then it’s their option to contest it with the Town Council.”