Despite more than an hour of public testimony in opposition to the appointments of Kevin Murphy and Kelly McElroy – who are both unrelated to but nonetheless strongly connected to Mayor Joseph Solomon through personal relationships – as the two newest municipal court judges in Warwick, the City Council Committee on Appointments approved both on Monday night for the positions.
McElroy, in particular, faced heavy scrutiny from those speaking at the podium. Not for her qualifications to perform the job – it was unanimously agreed by council members and the public alike that her resume more than speaks for itself. The 47-year-old Warwick resident has practiced at practically every level of law ranging from real estate to high-profile murder cases. She is also a professor at the law schools for both UMASS and Roger Williams.
Rather, the outcry was the result of the perceived “optics” of her being the daughter of James McElroy, the Ward 4 Councilman who won the seat that had long belonged to Solomon, and also sits as the chair of the appointments committee.
“Clearly this is a brilliant young woman who has worked extremely hard. She's dedicated. I'm proud that she's a citizen of Warwick…Her resume speaks volumes,” said citizen watchdog Rob Cote in regards to Kelly McElroy. “The problem is the optics. And I don’t think anybody understands the optics…This Council keeps doing things that gives us grounds to doubt your competence and this mayor's competence.”
Kelly McElroy said Solomon had known her since she “was a child” and that, “I don’t see how that would be problematic. That means he is able to attest to my temperament.”
Resident and ethics watchdog Richard Langseth said that the committee should hold off on the appropriations until they got an official advisory from the Rhode Island Ethics Commission.
“I would suggest that you hold the vote until someone goes to the ethics commission and gets a formal advisory opinion,” he said. “There is no rush.”
Kevin Murphy, who similarly demonstrated a legal career that the council felt was more than adequate to qualify for municipal judge, was asked about his father’s relationship with Solomon. He answered that his father had known Solomon for about 30 years, but was also visibly unappreciative of a line of questioning raised by Jay Buongiovanni, who heads the Warwick Financial Crisis Committee.
“I do not know if my father talks about me to Joe Solomon,” Murphy said flatly in response to Buongiovanni’s question. Buongiovanni began raising his voice asking further questions, to which Murphy raised his own voice, eventually shouting into the microphone, “And I can speak as loud as you can,” which prompted a cascade of boos from the large audience that had attended for the evening.
Councilman McElroy recused himself from the decision in appointing his daughter, and reportedly filed the necessary paperwork with the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. His stand-in for the appointment, Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, voted against her appointment, but Councilmen Jeremy Rix and Stephen McAllister voted in favor, sending the appointments to the full council. The full council was unable to ultimately vote on the appointments for final confirmation due to the meeting running past the midnight hour, however.
So, was it “Rhode Island politics as usual” at works, or merely two qualified people who happened to both be willing to perform one of the least-glamorous, least-thanked positions within city government despite having their own robust careers and responsibilities?
“The reason why we have public hearings is to shed light so people can speak their mind,” said Rix. “And when it comes to the process, I want to ensure people that I am not voting in favor of her appointment because of who [McElroy] is related to, or voting against her is because of who she is related to.”
Rix further stated that simply knowing somebody in a position of power Rhode Island shouldn’t be grounds for disapproval of an appointed position.
“I'm concerned that if we do not allow anyone who was a friend of either anyone on the council or the mayor or other people, then we would be left with very few qualified people,” he said. “This is not New York City with eight million or more people, this is a city with approximately 80,000 people.”
Rix’s comments drew the most raucous boos of the night, with one member of the public being so upset by her interpretation of his words that she became choked up at the podium.
“I am so disgusted and ashamed right now to live in this city,” said Ward 8 resident Jennifer Moffat. “You have a room full of children behind me that just happen to be here today. I want you to tell them why they should aspire to do anything special if they don't know a guy. My daughter is a super smart kid, she's a hard worker. She works her butt off at Dunkin Donuts, she bought her first car, she's on the National Honors Society and she wants to go to school to become a lawyer. What do I tell her? Don't bother because you don't know somebody? This is so shameful.” The last words drew a chant of “shame on you” from the audience, directed at the committee.
Not everyone involved in the discussion Monday night was opposed to the appointments because of concerns about ethics or non-familial nepotism. Some were opposed to the very concept that the two judges would replace Joel Gertsenblatt, who has served as municipal court judge for 24 years.
“It is [Mayor Solomon’s] prerogative to do that [make these appointments], but it's also what's in best interest of the people,” said Council President Steve Merolla. “And if you have somebody who is there who has been doing it for 24 years and has been doing an excellent job...I look as a no vote, not against Kelly, but against the fact that we need a replacement. I think you replace things when things are broken. You don't replace things when they're not broken.”
Merolla has contended that forcing Gerstenblatt into retirement will cost taxpayers more money than the savings that have been proposed by Solomon, who contends that having two judges at part time with no healthcare or pension benefits will save money in the long run.
“I don't think it will save us money and I don't think you need to fix things that aren’t broken,” Merolla said Monday night.
Solomon reiterated on Wednesday that, in his view, taxpayers no longer have to pay into Gerstenblatt’s pension plan, which he believes mitigates the expense of his pension.
“Anyone who thinks differently than that, clearly doesn't understand how the pension system operates,” Solomon said.
However, it is not immediately clear how much Gerstenblatt’s pension is worth, so this claim can’t be confirmed or refuted at this time.
The council is not expected to vote on the appointments until its Aug. 19 meeting.