Attempt to recall Councilman Jackson tangled in legal challenges

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Dust off your city charters, folks.

An attempt to remove Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson from office is now tangled in legal challenges from Jackson’s attorneys, who are objecting to the recall signatures submitted by a group of Ward 3 constituents while also accusing city officials of circumventing procedural rules throughout the process.

The latest complaint came Tuesday when Jackson’s attorneys accused the Providence Board of Canvassers of violating a policy in Providence’s Home Rule Charter that requires a notice for a public hearing to be published in a newspaper at least 10 days prior to the meeting being held. On Monday, the board scheduled a hearing on the recall for Friday.

In a response to attorneys Artin Coloian and Daniel Calabro, board lawyer William Dolan said a public hearing is being set for Jackson, but it is not required by the city charter. Dolan claimed that means the board is not required to give 10-day notice to the public.

Jackson, a 58-year-old Democrat who has represented Ward 3 on the East Side since 1995, was arrested by State Police in May and indicted by a statewide grand jury in July. He has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors allege Jackson embezzled $127,153 from the Providence Cobras youth track-and-field team, an organization that received more than $67,000 in taxpayer-funded city donations between 2005 and 2015. He is also accused of using $12,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses.

In September, a group of Jackson’s constituents submitted a declaration of intent to petition for recall to the city clerk that included more than 300 signatures, the number required to initiate the recall process.

The Board of Canvassers initially approved the signatures, but Jackson’s attorneys filed suit in an attempt to block the group from beginning to collect the 2,000 signatures they need to force an up or down vote on whether the councilman should be removed from office. The board agreed to hear Jackson’s objections.

In a letter to the board last week, Jackson’s attorneys laid out dozens of reasons the initial 300 signatures should be voided, most of which stem from errors they claim were made on the petition. The attorneys also claim a handwriting expert found evidence that some printed names may have been written by the same person.

The board was planning to hold a meeting Monday, but was forced to cancel after Jackson’s attorneys claimed a state-mandated 48-hour notice for public meetings wasn’t properly enforced.

The board is now planning to hold a meeting Wednesday and the public hearing on Friday.

Separately, Jackson’s attorneys have also claimed that the city violated the city charter by failing to obtain council approval when it hired Dolan as the board’s $200-per-hour attorney. Dolan, who works for Donoghue Barrett & Singal, is also defending the city in a lawsuit challenging changes to retiree benefits.

Jeffrey Dana, the city solicitor, said the legal department has long had the right to hire outside legal counsel without council approval.

Aside from the legal wrangling, the board faces a timing challenge as it considers whether to allow the recall group to move forward collecting 2,000 signatures or void the initial 300 signatures. The group was planning to use Election Day to collect the bulk of their signatures. (Ward 3 is expected to see the highest turnout over any neighborhood in the city.) If Jackson is successful, the group would face an uphill battle when it comes to signature collection.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan