Officials clash over who has final say on Google spending

Officials clash over who has final say on Google spending

NORTH PROVIDENCE - There's a standoff between Town Council President Kristen Catanzaro and the duo of Police Chief Paul Martellini and Mayor Charles Lombardi over who should have final authority to approve spending of the town's remaining $38 million in "Google money."

The key point of the conflict centers on a difference of opinion between the two sides on what the U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for the spending of drug forfeiture funds are saying.

Catanzaro believes the guidelines give the Town Council final approval to approve all expenditures, while Martellini believes that authority rests with his department.

If Catanzaro is right, says Martellini, the town and its Police Department have been wrongly spending such funds for the past several decades, spanning multiple mayors.

Following a phone conversation with Martellini last week, Catanzaro now says she plans to arrange a meeting between Martellini, herself and Department of Justice officials to hash out exactly what the guidelines are saying.

"If it's going to be semantics with reading the guidelines, his interpretation versus our interpretation, then we're going right to the Department of Justice and we're asking them," said Catanzaro Monday. "If he's looking at it one way, and I'm looking at it another way, then why are we playing this game?"

The only way she'll accept what Martellini is saying, that the particular sentence the council president is pointing to does not apply to North Providence because the town has a different form of government than the one mentioned, is if a meeting happens and she hears straight from Department of Justice officials that she is wrong, said Catanzaro.

If she is proven right, said Catanzaro, she expects the council to approve an ordinance taking over final authority of the Google spending.

Martellini told The Breeze he's all for "transparency" with how the Google funds are spent, but he is concerned about "how we go about it and what type of regulations are in place."

"I'm not sure where they're going with it," said the chief, referencing Catanzaro and her council colleagues.

Martellini said his interpretation of the Department of Justice guidelines is that they apply to communities with an appointed town manager style of government.

"I answer to the mayor," said Martellini. "That's my job and my obligation is fulfilled if I do that."

Lombardi said he concurs with Martellini's opinion that the language contained in the guidelines is "probably for a community that doesn't have a public safety director or mayor." He serves in both positions, said Lombardi, giving him and Martellini a say on how the money is spent but not Catanzaro and the council.

"I have great confidence in the police and what they're doing," said Lombardi. "This is nothing but a grab for authority or power and it's an insult to my position, intelligence or performance."

According to the guidelines, state or local law enforcement agencies must, among other things, "obtain approval for expenditures from the governing body, such as the town council or city manager's office, if appropriate."

Since the Town Council is ultimately responsible for approving town spending, says Catanzaro, the elected body should have authority over the Google funds. She and her allies on the council don't want to see police spend the money on items that the town won't be able to afford in the future.

The North Providence Police Department won $60 million last year as part of a $500 million settlement with Google last year. The department received the funds because one of its officers served on a task force charged with investigating the search giant.

So far, the only two expenditures applied for by police officials and approved by the Department of Justice have been $20.6 million to fix the town's ailing police pension fund and $1.26 million to buy a fleet of 32 new police vehicles.

According to Catanzaro, there is no wording anywhere that gives Lombardi authority over the Google money, as claimed by the mayor and hinted at by Martellini.

On June 11, Lombardi vetoed a budget line item that would have given the council authority to approve spending from the Google fund. Lombardi was wrong when he called the administration of the funds "an executive branch function," said Catanzaro. Even if Martellini does have final authority, she said, the chief is not part of the town's "executive branch" of government, meaning Lombardi should have no say on how the Google money is spent.