Distrustful council won't back down, criticizes Bryant's threat of legal action

Distrustful council won't back down, criticizes Bryant's threat of legal action

UPDATE: State Rep. Thomas Winfield said he received a telephone call on Thursday from Gov. Lincoln Chafee in which the governor announced that he has signed a bill allowing Smithfield to charge Bryant University for public safety responses to the Bryant campus, unless the two sides negotiate a different arrangement.

SMITHFIELD - It's a "town and gown" clash that's growing uglier by the day and is smothering the town's 42-year relationship with Bryant University.

In fact, this combat in need of a referee is so strained that now the two sides can't even agree on what has already happened, never mind what might bring them together in the future.

With the town continuing to demand payment for its police and fire service to the university, and Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley threatening legal action, arguments from both sides intensified over the past week - with the deadline approaching tonight, July 11, for Gov. Lincoln Chafee to either veto legislation allowing the charges or to let the measure become state law.

Machtley fired several salvos during the week reiterating his position that the university is a major economic engine for the town and already provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and in-kind services.

He also noted that the town gets nearly $500,000 a year from the state because of Bryant's presence here, and that the university because it is largely self-contained puts little pressure on municipal services.

But the Town Council, which has argued that Bryant is now the only college or university in the state that does not contribute significant cash to its host community, on Tuesday continued discussing a draft agreement with Bryant in which it seeks a $300,000 annual payment, and other compensation, to make up for the cost of public safety runs to the university.

The atmosphere right now is contentious.

At Tuesday's Town Council meeting, members challenged Machtley's repeated assertions that Bryant has had several months of good-faith negotiations with the town.

In fact, councilors said, Machtley has never met with them since their election last November.

Asked about that, Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. - a former Bryant trustee who has urged his council colleagues to make sure any demands on Bryant are fair - said he knows of only one meeting, months ago, between him, Town Manager Dennis Finlay, and Machtley.

Despite Machtley's assertions to the contrary, said Councilwoman Suzanna Alba, "They are not negotiating with us at all."

The two sides also differ on why Machtley never showed up at recent meetings in which the council wanted to negotiate.

In a letter to the editor in today's Valley Breeze & Observer, Machtley writes of the initial council session, "Despite the fact that Bryant was not notified of that meeting and we learned of it only after seeing the agenda online, I had representatives from my office attend on my behalf." Machtley wrote he was committed that night to hosting a reception for incoming freshman and their families.

But his contention about not being notified was flat-out challenged by some on the council, and Manager Finlay said he personally hand-delivered the invitation to Bryant about three days before the session.

Alba acknowledged that to give Machtley his due, the invitation allowed him little time to plan for it, but that nonetheless, it was made.

In his letter to the editor, Machtley also sheds light on why he could not attend a second session with the council June 25.

He wrote, "I felt my absence was justified as I was hospitalized that evening in a Boston Hospital after undergoing a major surgery."

As for the immediate future, Finlay said he sent Machtley a letter about two weeks ago, suggesting several upcoming dates for negotiation, but has not yet received a response.

Alba, meanwhile, bored in Tuesday on what she indicated was intransigence on Bryant's part, asserting, "I just want to say for the record this is not a great example for the students of Bryant. It should teach fair practices, not putting a dark cloud over our town and the university."

She said she hoped that Bryant would choose not to spend its money on litigation, which would also be a town expense, instead of coming to an agreement.

Machtley, in a recent email to Bryant's faculty, staff, students and their parents, urged them to call on Chafee to veto the legislation sponsored by the local General Assembly delegation, noting, "...we are on the right side of this important issue and we must try to educate people and change public opinion."

Machtley recently offered the town a $35,000 annual cash payment, 200 reconstituted laptop computers a year for the high school over 10 years, and other in-kind service enhancements - a proposal the council and local legislators said was woefully inadequate.

They said all the other colleges and universities make cash contributions to their host communities and that they are simply asking Bryant to follow suit.

The council said it would resume work on its draft proposal to Bryant at its Aug. 6 meeting.

Meanwhile, the town's Assembly delegation met with members of the governor's staff Monday, outlining their arguments on why the legislation should go forward.

Rep. Thomas Winfield said afterward that he feels Machtley is showing disrespect to townspeople in allegedly refusing to come to the table.

In his letter, Machtley said that is not true, adding, "While we would prefer to continue to talk in good faith with the town of Smithfield we are reviewing all of our legal options..."

The council has said it considers its draft agreement, still subject to revision Aug. 6, as a starting point for negotiating an arrangement with Bryant that would essentially nullify the legislation.

As it currently stands, the town's proposal, in addition to the $300,000 annual payment that would rise 1.5 percent a year, also calls for a payment once every five years of $150,000 for the purchase of police and fire equipment.

It also seeks a donation of land for a North End fire station, with Bryant able to deduct the value of the property from the proposed annual cash payment.

Among items expected to come up Aug. 6 will be Alba's request for the agreement to seek more scholarships, other than the one Bryant annually offers a single high school student, and the possible addition of tuition breaks for municipal employees.

Councilwoman Maxine Cavanagh said she agreed with adding more scholarship aid.

Alba said, however, that whatever the town asks, "I'm not certain Bryant is going to consider our proposal at all."

LaGreca urged his colleagues to come up with a "reasonable" recommendation, asserting that "We can put everything we want in here but it's going to be self-defeating."