The RI ACLU has today filed a lawsuit against Central Falls Receiver Robert Flanders, Jr., charging that he has unlawfully delegated to an appointed hearing officer powers that are afforded only to him under the state law authorizing his appointment. The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Jennifer Azevedo, argues that the receiver’s actions are a violation of the open meetings law, the Financial Stability Act, and residents’ rights to due to process and to petition their government. The suit is on behalf of Central Falls resident Shaunne Thomas. 

The issue was first brought to the ACLU’s attention in January when residents complained about the receiver’s enactment (subsequently suspended) of an ordinance restricting on-street parking in the city. In investigating the complaints, the ACLU was surprised to learn that the receiver was not even present at the “council” meetings where the ordinance was approved. Rather, meeting minutes showed that his “hearing officer,” Gayle Corrigan, presided at those meetings and made the motions to approve the parking ordinance. The ACLU wrote a letter to the receiver, arguing that he had no authority to delegate this sort of responsibility to a third party, but the receiver disagreed, prompting today’s lawsuit.

Last year, in upholding the constitutionality of the statute creating the Receiver mechanism, the RI Supreme Court did so by noting that “the receiver may exercise the powers of an authority or office to the limits of that authority or office, and no further.” The lawsuit argues that actions such as those described above exceed the powers of the City Council, whose members have no authority to pick surrogates to act and vote in their place at council meetings, and thus exceed the power of the receiver.

Among other things, the lawsuit specifically alleges that, as a result of the receiver’s conduct, residents “have been denied their right to due process and their right to petition the government for the redress of grievances, as the ‘hearing officer’ is neither their elected official nor is she the receiver duly appointed by the State to act in place of elected officials, pursuant to the Financial Stability Act.” The suit also claims the receiver has violated the Open Meetings Act by “failing to convene and preside over public meetings or take official actions at those public meetings, and instead sending an unelected substitute to whom the State has not delegated the power and authority of elected officials.” The suit seeks a court order declaring that the receiver has unlawfully delegated his powers to the “hearing officer,” and preventing him from continuing to do so.

ACLU attorney Azevedo said today: “It is dubious enough that the receivership law disenfranchises the entire electorate of Central Falls, replacing the Mayor and City Council with a Receiver, but to then have that Receiver delegate the duties of those elected officers to a third party is utterly unacceptable.”  Plaintiff Thomas added: “As an African American woman, I especially cherish my First Amendment rights, my right to due process, and my right to vote for my leaders. After hundreds of years of my people being denied these rights, I cannot sit by quietly and watch an appointed receiver abuse my rights.”

The RI ACLU testified against passage of the receivership statute in 2010 on the grounds that it disenfranchised an entire electorate, and has objected to the broad powers assumed by the receiver in Central Falls.