BURRILLVILLE – To an outsider, annual meetings of a village fire district can always have the potential to seem a bit chaotic, with attendees shouting resolutions, and voting done by a less-than official seeming show-of-hands.

But members of the Harrisville Fire District Operating Committee had some added obstacles at that district’s annual meeting this week, as residents gathered at the Assembly Theatre following distancing protocols aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Still, the district managed to elect new officers, and pass budgets totaling $905,802 and $1,658,370, respectively, for the water and fire districts.

One of the first government meetings to be held in-person since distancing protocols were put in place across the state in March, the gathering of local taxpayers utilized the 354-seat venue to allow attendees to spread out. Masks were required, temperatures were taken at the door, and every aisle in the theater was blocked to keep people separated.

But some confusion ensued the moment the meeting began.

At issue first was Justin Batalon’s term on the operating committee following comments from Office Manager Brenda Gingell that the district had mistakenly elected him to a one-year term, rather than a three-year term at the annual meeting in 2019.

Batalon was initially chosen to fill the remainder of a three year term previously held by state Rep. David Place, but according to Gingell and Attorney Michael Crane, the vote last June was supposed to fill a full, expired term.

“The vote did not comply with the charter and bylaws. As they expire, those seats keep their years though the individuals may change,” Crane explained. “It sounds like it was just an honest mistake.

Resident Peggy Dudley took issue with a suggestion that the district should amend the minutes of the prior gathering to reflect a three-year term.

“The minutes have to reflect what happened last year,” Dudley said. “You don’t doctor your minutes.”  

Distancing protocols in the large venue somewhat complicated proceedings as committee members didn’t hear several motions shouted across the venue yelled through masks by participants.

After some extended debate, voters agreed to take up Batalon’s potential reelection at a special meeting in August.

Gingell also took issue with a vote to pursue fire district consolidation taken at the 2019 gathering, which she noted was not posted on the meeting agenda as required by the state’s Open Meetings law.

Voters Tuesday agreed to reverse the decision.

Chief Michael Gingell gave the chief’s report, noting that the department has yet to find a way to complete a needed expansion of their Harrisville Main Street headquarters.

“The fire station, in my opinion, is in good condition,” Chief Gingell said, noting that his staff has simply outgrown the facility. 

Gingell noted that the department looked at potentially purchasing land across the street for the needed upgrade, but was turned down.

“It looks like we’re boxed in a bit in terms of expansion,” the chief said.

Gingell noted that the department is made up of 12 paid career workers, per diem employees and various volunteers.

“We work well together and we carry out our mission,” he said. 

But the tone of gathering again shifted as the crowd took up election of a clerk. Michael Duttily had launched a bid for the spot held by Nathan St. Pierre, who was seeking reelection.

The attorney noted that 54 people had cast votes in the race, but only 50 eligible voters had signed in at the meeting. Four individuals said they had not signed in, but Crane suggested that because the results showed a close margin of error, the vote should be retaken.

Several individuals at the back of the venue noted that some of those who cast a ballot for the clerk seat had since left. Someone made a motion to accept the vote as originally cast, which was passed by a majority in attendance.

Unlike at most government meetings governed by Roberts Rules of Order, few participants were asked to state their name for the record.

Dutilly was ultimately named to the seat by a vote of 28 to 26.

A four-way race for three positions on the district’s operating committee, meanwhile, saw victories for David Houle, Ronald Slocum and Roger Joseph Johnson, while Silvia St. Pierre lost with just 23 votes. 

Several residents scolded committee members for proposing a budget with a $43,000 increase during a year when the pandemic has left many unemployed. 

Nathan St. Pierre questioned the need for $27,000 in office supplies.

Office manager Gingell responded that, “There was some things that we need- big items- to keep the office running.?

Others took issue with the inclusion of the deputy chief’s position, noting that money was approved in the budget last year, but the no one was ever hired for the new role.  

A motion to adopt the spending plan ultimately passed by a thin margin.

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