A longtime Block Island resident’s wish to provide housing for the town’s police officers - funded with more than $500,000 from her estate - has mushroomed into allegations of fraud, conflict of interest, and the police left out of the equation altogether. Nearly a decade after she died, the town is facing two lawsuits: one filed recently by the island’s six police officers, and another last spring by a lifelong resident who says the town is not honoring the woman’s intentions. Jim Hummel travels to the island to get the details - and a response from the town.
If you’ve ever tried to rent a place to stay on Block Island you know the challenge - in price and availability.
That challenge is multiplied for town employees - many working on modest salaries - trying to find a year-round place to live.
Payne: “Most of the buildings here are rented out for the summer, so you’re only going to be able to rent something in the off season, which would be six months.”
Cathy Payne is a 10th-generation islander, who last year began asking questions about a trust that longtime island resident Violette Connolly set up more than a decade ago to provide reduced rent housing for the island’s police officers. Connolly directed the town to carry out her wishes after she died in 2010 - with more than half a million from her estate.
Now a multitude of town officials find themselves the target of two lawsuits: one from Payne - who said the town is ignoring Connolly’s intentions and the police officers themselves, who claim they have never had the opportunity to take advantage of the housing envisioned in Connolly’s will.
Indeglia: “Most of us create a will and we hope that our wishes are going to be carried out.”
Vincent Indeglia is an attorney representing the six officers employed by the town.
Indeglia: “No police officer has ever been brought into being informed anything about the trust she left for their benefit to reduce their rent.”
After her husband died, Connolly in 2007 changed her will to leave her house off Spring Street to the town to be maintained as a museum - and some smaller units to be offered to police officers at a reduced rent.
When Connolly had to go into a nursing home in North Kingstown, the town received court permission to sell the property to cover her medical bills. Eighteen months after her death, the town used more than half a million dollars from her estate to buy 2 1/2 acres - known by islanders as The Thomas property - a mile away on High Street that had an 1,800 square-foot duplex built in 1957.
The lawsuits allege that nowhere along the line were the police officers made aware of the trust, or given a chance to be included in discussions about how the money from Connolly’s estate would be used.
Indeglia: “Nobody bothered to ask any police officer that existed at the time what their opinion was, being the beneficiaries of this trust. The attorney general never sought them out, the Town Council never sought them out, the Town Council’s attorney never sought them out, Violette Connolly’s executrix and lawyer for the estate never sought them out. So it all happened - they had no idea.”
The town has rented the duplex to Brown University students who have come over to work at the Block Island Medical Center across the street.
Payne got involved last year when she discovered the town wanted to rezone the land to allow the construction of a single-family home for the town manager - and an additional two apartments. She calls it illegal spot zoning and unfair for others who own similar lots that have restrictions of how many structures can be built on them.
Payne: “I’m in the RA zone and I have three lots of record, and I can’t do that. I would never be able to build five units on my property. The idea of the town buying the Thomas property, using her money to buy the Thomas property, you assumed it would be for the police and it’s becoming this big huge real estate development.”
Plans call for a 1,600-square-foot, three bedroom house to go here. It is a modular home being constructed off-island that will be assembled later this fall, at a total cost of nearly $600,000.
Taxpayers approved spending a total of $1.5 million for construction of the manager’s house - and eventually an additional two-unit apartment for $900,000. The manager will be given first crack at renting the home at a rate yet to be determined.
Indeglia: “The current plan is to build a house of $600,00 or more for the benefit, currently, of one person for the entire town. Those guys are like: why don’t you build me a $600,000 house? That’s what she wanted, it was her money.”
Indeglia questions how two town boards went through a rezoning process without the Connolly trust - or housing for the police - ever being brought up..
Indeglia: “It would seem that any prudent planning board, which is represented by a town solicitor, would say what was the deal with this property? How did the town come to own it eight years ago. Not once is that asked. It’s such a huge glaring omission.”
Town Manager Ed Roberge told the Hummel Report that his predecessor, Nancy Dodge, every year had conversations with the police about using the units, but they declined to rent them. But, he added, those were conversations and there is nothing on file to confirm it at Town Hall.
The police, in their lawsuit, say that’s simply not true.
Indeglia: “My clients tell me they have never been offered the opportunity to rent any place, let alone at that property.”
Indeglia points out that Block Island is a unique community, with a small year-round population where virtually everyone knows everyone.
Indeglia: “The suit isn’t really about a personal vendetta against any one person, it’s just take me back in the time machine, bring me back to 2011, let the police officers’ interest be known to the judge and what the true intent of Mrs. Connolly was at the time and see if we can’t rectify this situation before it gets out of hand.”
Payne says Roberge, a civil engineer by training, has a conflict of interest because he has been heavily involved in the planning for a house they he will eventually live in.
Payne: “He’s the engineer, apparently, he’s designing this house, he’s talking to the contractors, he’s running the show for himself. It’s very self-serving. Very self-serving.”
Hummel: “Does that come across to you as a conflict of interest?”
Payne: “Yeah, I think that’s a conflict of interest.”
Roberge declined to talk about a potential conflict, as it’s part of pending litigation.
Payne: “I’m hoping that they stop the project, and not do it there, and I’m not sure if I believe that the town manager should have a brand new house. I think we should have town managers that live here, we don’t need to import one from any other town, there’s plenty of smart people here who could run our town. They have to understand that their decisions are going to affect generations from now.”
On Block Island, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.