On Saturday Exeter residents will decide whether they will recall four of their five town councilors. Angry residents petitioned for the recall after the town council asked lawmakers to move the permitting of concealed guns from the town clerk to the attorney general’s office.
Those who oppose the recall said gun enthusiasts outside of Exeter are influencing the town politics. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Catherine Welch looked into that claim and joins us now.
ELISABETH: So this recall is centered on who hands out permits in Exeter for concealed weapons.
CATHERINE: Pretty much. Local police departments usually handle permitting. But Exeter is the only municipality in Rhode Island without a police department so the town clerk issues permits. Because the town clerk lacks equipment to run background checks, the town council wanted permitting moved to the attorney general’s office, which has the resources to run the checks.
Exeter town councilman Bob Johnson said nobody wants to take away anyone’s guns, this would just be quote “a clerical change”
Now those supporting the recall said the permitting process should stay inside Exeter.
ELISABETH: And now Political Action Committees have been formed. There’s the “Save Exeter” PAC, which opposes the recall. And on the other side of the issue is the “We the People/RI Firearm Owners League.” Who are they?
CATHERINE: “Save Exeter” is made of locals, it was formed in October as soon as the petition for the recall went through. It lists Exeter residents as its members most noteworthy is treasurer Bob Hicks, who is the husband of Arlene Hicks who is the town council president and up for recall.
“We the People/RI Firearm Owners League” is out of Cranston, there are Exeter residents involved but the group has members from outside of town who live in places like Lincoln, Newport and Charlestown. One member who is an Exeter resident, Lance Edwards, said the PAC was formed by combining “We the People,” which was formed to circulate the recall petition, and the RI Firearm Owners League or RIFOL as they’re also known. He says RIFOL has been around since 2010, and formed the PAC with “We The People” the assist with state campaign finance laws.
ELISABETH: Who’s funding these groups?
CATHERINE: “Save Exeter” formed in October, so there are no financial disclosure forms yet filed. So going on what I’ve been told they’ve raised about $6,000.
ELISABETH: How much of that is from residents outside of Exeter?
CAT: Without the records I can only go on what I’m told, town councilor Bob Johnson said they’ve received contributions from the state’s democratic party, and the City and Town Chair Association. Johnson said none of the money raised came from outside Rhode Island, that means no contributions from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group as has been rumored.
ELISABETH: And “We the People/RI Firearm Owners League” how much do they have?
CATHERINE: “We the People/RIFOL” it has a disclosure filing for the third quarter which shows a balance of about $4,200.
ELISABETH: And where did that money come from?
CATHERINE: There was a fundraiser at a sportsman’s club but PAC members I talked with couldn’t tell me when it was or how much was raised. The contribution disclosure form shows most of that $4,200 balance was in a lump of what’s called “aggregated individual contributions.” It’s impossible to tell if that was from the fundraiser or where that money came from. But the individual contributions listed, there were eight of them, all but one was from outside Exeter and that last one lacked any information, so it’s unclear where it came from.
ELISABETH: Is any money from outside groups?
CATHERINE: PAC members tell me there has been no NRA money. Now the Rhode Island chapter of the NRA closed up shop after complaints that it failed to fully disclose its donors, so we won’t know if it made a contribution until the January filing deadline.
ELISABETH: But there’s more to influence than money.
CATHERINE: Robert Hicks of “Save Exeter” tells me that during the boisterous meeting back in March there were a lot of out-of-state licenses plates in the parking lot. Minutes from that meeting shows people from across the state speaking during the public comment period. And Councilor Bob Johnson points to Ed Doyle, who represents the Rhode Island chapter of Gun Rights Across America, he’s taken to YouTube and Facebook to rally gun owners around the issue.
ELISABETH: So what’s the bottom line here, is democracy being threatened in Exeter?
CATHERINE: Well if that hinges on the theft and defiling of signs, then both sides would say yes. But you know it depends on which side of the issue you’re on. Those who support the recall point to that crowded March meeting, and that it was a record attendance and that should have tipped off the town council to have given residents more democracy by giving them a voice and putting the permitting issue up for referendum.
On the other side, town councilor Bob Johnson said everyone has the right to raise the issue, but if Exeter’s town council is recalled then what’s in store for any city or town that takes up an issue gun owners are against?
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Rhode Island chapter of "Mom's Demand Action for Gun Sense in America" said it did not give money to "Save Exeter."
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