“I’d like to congratulate Councilwoman (Donna) Travis for another front page of the Providence Journal,” Rob Cote said while holding up a copy of the newspaper during the beginning …
“I’d like to congratulate Councilwoman (Donna) Travis for another front page of the Providence Journal,” Rob Cote said while holding up a copy of the newspaper during the beginning of the public portion of the City Council meeting on Monday.
“You’ll be talking about city government, or you’ll be leaving,” retorted Travis who in the absence of Steve McAllister was filling her role as president pro tempore. After less than a minute of back and forth, Cote, who regularly attends council meetings said “this is about city government.” He was then promptly escorted out by a police officer. As he left the microphone, he said he would take the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union. He reached out to them later that night.
“What they failed to see is that under the First Amendment and the council rules and the Rhode Island State Constitution, I have the right to confront an elected official, and whether they like what I have to say or don’t like what I have to say, it’s my constitutional right to do so,” he added. “Nobody is going to trample on my First Amendment (rights).”
Steven Brown, Executive Director of ACLU RI, confirmed receipt of Cote’s complaint. He said it would be forwarded to the legal committee for review at an upcoming meeting within the month, and they will decide whether there are grounds to provide legal assistance regarding this case. Brown added that the allegations against Travis seemed “top of public concern,” and Cote should have had the opportunity to speak about it.
“I don’t think a public body has the right to arbitrarily decide who can and can’t speak based on unwritten and vaguely defined rules,” he said.
Cote’s claims reference a Providence Journal story that Travis and her husband, William quitclaim deeded a .07-acre parcel adjacent to their home on Oakland Beach Avenue in 2021 with an assessed value of $65,700. Travis and her husband care for the property, use it for parking and pay taxes on it. However, officers of the Oakland Beach Real Estate Owners Association that held title to the land say the process was covert and did not abide by the organization’s bylaws. The association is demanding return of the land, and they maintain that they properly acquired it.
According to Cote, Deb Spatley, OBREOA president and the original complainant, reached out to him in January while she was first going through the documents. He said he connected her with people and the media. Cote predicts that this matter will be settled in either criminal or civil court.
“She’s running interference on herself so nobody can come up and try to discredit her,” Cote said.
Travis said that the council has had numerous conversations with Cote about not making personal attacks on the floor. She said that while this rule “may not be written in black-and-white,” it’s been the common practice under the leadership of many City Council presidents.
“The council floor is to get business done,” she added. “Not grandstanding.”
Travis clarified that this rule is not intended to silence discourse about local matters.
“He can speak about all of the issues in the city,” Travis said. “He can complain about taxes. He can complain about schools. He can complain about the fire department. It doesn’t matter, as long as he is not taking a personal attack on one person.”
Brown said that after watching the video of the situation, “it’s hard to call it a personal attack when he was only able to get a few words out of his mouth before being shut down.”
Cote said he had “an extensive conversation” with Councilman Ed Ladouceur from Ward 5 following his expulsion from the meeting.
Ladouceur said that the “tape is clear as to what occurred,” referring to the video of the meeting proceedings. He said that perhaps it would have been better if Cote had not broached that subject, saying that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Ladouceur added that in hindsight, the city sergeant should have been involved rather than the police.
Cote said this isn’t the first time he has been shut down by someone associated with the city. He said that a lot of elected officials do not like him because he “has exposed a lot of corruption and theft in the City of Warwick.” For example, he extensively researched the fire department to uncover excess spending, earning himself the epithet “watchdog.”
“I uncover waste and abuse,” he said. “They just don’t like that.” As a resident of Warwick for 63 years and a business owner, Cote said he has “vested interest in the healthiness of the community.”
He said he consults public records, court documents and online searches in advance of appearing at meetings that cover issues he cares about.
“I don’t speak until I have official documents in my hand,” he added. “Rob Cote will not open his mouth unless he has documents that substantiate what he is saying.”
Travis said she has dealt with Cote in the past. She recalled him making a flier with her picture on it and putting it on all of the windshields in the Stop & Shop parking lot to expose her taxes which included a temporary payment plan. She said she has been paying her taxes in full for the past 8 years. Travis described Cote as “always on the hunt.”
“He’s been doing this forever,” she added. “Every time he comes, he has to complain about something. He’s said bad things about the mayor, council people and me.”
She said that he’ll “keep going to anyone who listens to him” but also said “a lot of people are tired of it.”