Yazbak says town violated charter in hiring attorney, accountants

Yazbak says town violated charter in hiring attorney, accountants

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Taking issue with the process by which the town hired outside legal counsel and an auditing firm to address deficit spending by the School Department, Councilor Edward Yazbak said this week that he believes the town charter has been violated.

"My rights as a town councilor, and my privileges as a town councilor, and my responsibility as a town councilor, have been taken away from me," Yazbak said.

The reaction was provoked, in part, by a Feb. 27 article in The Breeze titled "Accounting firm begins to examine school deficit in North Smithfield." The story announced that consultants Thomas Sweeney and Walter Edge had been brought on board by attorney Stephen Robinson to verify a reported $470,000 shortfall announced in January by School Department officials.

Yazbak said he only learned of the hires through the newspaper.

"I feel that it's something that's the responsibility of the council," he said. "We're kept in the dark on purpose. I don't know for what reason, but this whole thing should have come before the council."

The Town Council discussed a procedure to address the deficit during executive session at its Feb. 10 meeting, and later voted to send the School Committee an agreement on the issue during public meeting.

The meeting was held at North Smithfield High School, and the auditorium that evening was filled with parents, students and teachers awaiting a resolution to the funding conflict, which had threatened spring sports and the transportation for after-school activities. Yazbak voted against holding the closed door session, which lasted around an hour, and ultimately did not attend, opting instead to wait with the public.

Town Solicitor James Lombardi later hired Robinson, under authority he says he's explicitly given through his contract.

"He feels he had the right to hire Mr. Robinson for the School Department work," said Yazbak. "I told him that I disagree with that. His contract is in direct violation of the town charter."

Asked later to clarify his statements, Yazbak pointed to Article VI, Section 4, which refers to the duties of the town solicitor.

"The town solicitor shall be the attorney for the town and legal adviser to the town administrator, town council, and all other departments except the school department, offices and agencies of the town," it states.

"He shall appear for and protect the rights of the town in all actions, suits or proceedings, civil or criminal, in law or equity, brought by or against the town or for or against any of its departments, officers or agencies and shall perform such other duties appropriate to his office as the town administrator and town council may require."

Lombardi's contract, meanwhile, states that "the town solicitor shall be allowed to retain outside counsel to handle services not within the retainer," listing the specific duties of attending council and planning board meetings; advising, working, and communicating with the council, town administrator and town directors; and reviewing ordinances and resolutions.

Lombardi maintains that he routinely obtains services for the town from outside attorneys and that the process is common, not just in North Smithfield, but across Rhode Island.

"Retention of outside counsel is not unique to my term as solicitor or to this town or any other town," he said.

"The contract allows the solicitor retain outside counsel and that agreement is not in conflict with the charter," Lombardi added. "It would be impossible for two part-time people - solicitor and assistant solicitor - to handle all of the legal matters of the town."

Such services, he said, are financed by a line item in the town budget specifically dedicated to extraordinary litigation.

This year that line item contained $90,000. Lombardi, meanwhile, is paid $58,789 annually for his services.

Yazbak also points to Article IV, Section 8 of the charter, which outlines the powers of the Town Council, including "to provide for the audit at any time of the accounts of the town or any of its departments and to provide for an annual audit as hereinafter prescribed."

"The authority to hire auditors is with the council," Yazbak said. "It says that the Town Council will approve all auditors."

"This whole process is flawed," he added of the hirings. "It's very clear that only one or two people seem to be driving the bus, and I don't know when this turned into a dictatorship. I still thought it was a democracy."

Councilor Thomas McGee said he agreed with Yazbak.

"I'm in the same position he is," McGee said. "I just feel like we jumped the gun in hiring the attorney. I felt like we weren't really ready for that."

Lombardi responded that he wanted to make sure that the town was prepared for the possibility of Caruolo action from the School Department, a law that allows a school committee to sue its town if they believe they were inadequately funded.

He also disputed the idea that hiring the accounting firm was a charter violation.

"The section of the charter that was referenced was for the annual audit, not hiring an accountant to review records," Lombardi told The Breeze. "Outside counsel hired the accounting firm to perform services as authorized in the agreement passed by the council."

The agreement states that sending an appropriation to the School Department - beyond the $240,000 already approved to address the deficit - is "conditioned upon the recommendation of a qualified accounting firm retained by the town's legal counsel."

Council President John Flaherty said he's confident the board followed the proper process.

"We were advised by the solicitor that it's within his purview to hire outside legal council should he determine that it's necessary," he said. "It was not hidden. I announced it in open session."

The Monday night meeting was drawing to a close during discussion of the matter and the council voted to extend the time by 15 minutes to finish the conversation, but Yazbak walked out.

"I've had enough," he said. "I'm going home."

Comments

With the recent revelation that Mr. Yazbak's past actions have cost this town $290,000, his opinions and statements MUST be ignored! His bullied and forced recomendations concerning the firing of the former town highway director back in 2005 has now cost the town $290,000!!!!!! He is nothing but a rabble-rouser and his words are meaningless. He violated the town charter when he saw it fit to do so, right? What a shame to have him sit on our council. Mr. Yazbak - just move on and get out of our town's political scene. Your continued presence only hurts this town.

When you don't follow the charter, you get mediocre representation, when you get mediocre representation, you make bad decisions, when you make bad decisions you need a budget commission. That's why you need ED.

Well said Mr. Baillargeon.
Mr. Yazbak is correct.
Mr. Lombardi said "The section of the charter that Yazbak referenced was for the annual audit, not hiring an accountant to review records". Nonsense.
The Charter states "to provide for the audit AT ANY TIME of the accounts of the town or any department AND to provide for an ANNUAL AUDIT.." That is, the Charter confers upon the Council the authority and power to do BOTH - "to provide for the audit at ANY TIME ...of any of its departments" AND to "provide for an ANNUAL AUDIT".
Moreover, the Solicitor is allowed to hire outside counsel (that is LEGAL counsel), not professional services such as accounting firms.
Lastly, Yazbak and the Council do not hire or fire town employees. That is the purview of the Administrator. Blaming Yazbak for the mishandling of the Highway Superintendant is silly.

Refreshing to see lucid commentary rather than what is typically broadcast when people of limited intellectual capacity are allowed to run amok along the keyboard. Adherence to NS's Charter is vital to our existence as a town; faithfully following the tenets of the Charter is our only hope to continuing democracy.

Unfortunately, democratic principles appear to be taking a backseat to what is rapidly becoming an oligarchy. Please take a moment to review the proposed Charter amendments as published on the Town's (or is it the Queen's?) website. The construction of many of those drafts portends we are indeed going backwards.

If Mr. Yazbak is correct (and judging by his track-record, I'm guessing he is), the balance of the Town Council (excluding Mr. McGee, who typicaly exudes common-sense) should take his lead and go home - for good. That is, for the good of us all...and please take the Town Administrator with you.