‘Sanctuary City’ proposal draws debate and confusion

‘Sanctuary City’ proposal draws debate and confusion

WOONSOCKET – A former councilor’s effort to have the City Council declare Woonsocket a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City” ended in confusion on Monday after members of the council and administration told him his proposal did not comply with the terms of the state Open Meetings Act.

Richard Fagnant, a former councilor until December 2018, requested to address the council this week regarding a proposed resolution to declare Woonsocket a sanctuary city for gun-owners. On Monday, close to a dozen individuals sporting yellow T-shirts joined him at City Hall to support a measure they said would affirm the U.S. Constitution and protect gun-owners’ rights.

According to Fagnant, he was contacted by a group of gun rights’ proponents about a month ago to propose a resolution similar to those seen in other cities and towns in Rhode Island. Fagnant told councilors he’s also spoken with city residents who support the effort.

“I’ve spoken to many of them, and they’re in agreement that this resolution, which by the way is non-binding, is very important,” he said. “And I’m going to explain that right now, why it’s important.”

Before he could explain the terms of the resolution, Councilor James Cournoyer interrupted to raise concerns that the former councilor’s topic of discussion, listed in the agenda as “2A Sanctuary City resolution and downside of being a politician,” was not specific enough to cover a resolution aimed at protecting second amendment rights. Citing a recent warning by the Attorney General’s Office that the council had twice violated the state Open Meetings Act, Cournoyer said he was concerned the agenda item was too vague for residents to know the topic of discussion in advance.

“If we’re talking about the second amendment, that’s not what this says, and I don’t want to open us up to a third strike if you will,” he said.

After receiving confirmation from City Solicitor John DeSimone that Fagnant should proceed with “an abundance of caution,” Council President Daniel Gendron asked Fagnant to return with a more specific agenda item and said he would not allow the discussion to continue. The conversation ended in confusion, with Fagnant accusing councilors of playing games before leaving the podium.

The Open Meetings Act is a state law that requires public bodies to post detailed agendas at least 48 hours in advance of meetings to ensure their activities remain transparent to the public. In July, the Attorney General’s Office determined the council violated the OMA when Councilor Jon Brien leveled criticism at state Sen. Melissa Murray without naming her in his agenda item, instead listing his comments under “legislative report.”

In 2015, the office found the council in violation of the OMA for a similar situation, this one involving Fagnant, who at the time served as a member of the city Zoning Board. During a meeting, several councilors raised concerns about comments Fagnant had posted on his Facebook page that they deemed inappropriate without declaring the topic on an agenda in advance.

On Monday, councilors spent the remainder of the meeting choosing their words carefully so as not to violate the OMA in light of the earlier conversation. During the good and welfare portion of the meeting, several councilors asked DeSimone to clarify the law for future discussions.

Monday’s debate followed in the footsteps of decisions by several other cities and towns in the state, including Burrillville and Foster, to declare themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuary Cities” in the face of what they see as a threat to gun-owners’ rights. The movement took off in the spring in response to calls by Gov. Gina Raimondo for tighter state gun control measures. This week, Raimondo renewed calls for tighter gun control after the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.

Though Monday’s discussion included little detail on the actual proposed resolution, an email sent by Fagnant to members of the press included a sample resolution that encouraged members of the police department to “exercise sound discretion when enforcing laws impacting the right of citizens under the Second Amendment.” The sample resolution also barred the city from using public funds to store weapons seized during the enforcement of gun control legislation.

According to Gendron, supporters of the measure can return to the council with a more specific agenda item or address their comments during the “good and welfare” portion of the meeting. Speaking to The Valley Breeze after the meeting, he said the city could entertain a resolution at a future meeting, but expressed concerns the proposal was not clear.

“As they pointed out, we have a constitution, we have a state law, I want to know where is the violation of the second amendment,” he said.