Little Compton

Little Compton Local Elections and Politics: Questions, Answers, Observations (Part 1)

NOTE: This post is the first in a series about Little Compton elections and politics. Subsequent posts will appear intermittently.

2022 is an election year in Little Compton and Rhode Island. At a primary election on September 13 and a general election on November 8, registered voters–also described as “electors” by provisions of state law and constitution–will have the opportunity to cast ballots for:

  • Some local offices, proposed Home Rule Charter amendments, and a question asking whether the town should issue licenses “for businesses involved in the cultivation, manufacture, laboratory testing and for the retail sale of adult recreational use cannabis”;
  • State legislators and general officers (i.e., governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and general treasurer), as well as statewide bond issues;
  • Federal offices, principally the Representatives from the state’s two Congressional districts (neither of Rhode Island’s two U.S. Senate seats is on the ballot this year).

At the end of June, Little Compton residents seeking local office filed their declarations of candidacy. All the declared candidates subsequently filed nomination papers with enough signatures to qualify as candidates who will be included on the ballot at the November general election. (There are no partisan contests for local office on the ballot for the September 13 statewide primary election.) In Little Compton, this year’s qualified candidates for town office include:

School Committee:
(Three elected to four-year terms)
TRAVIS H. AUTY (Democrat)
SUSAN E. KINNANE (Republican)
BRANDON E. PINEO (Republican)

Town Council
(Five elected to two-year terms)
GARY S. MATARONAS (Republican)
ROBERT L. MUSHEN (Republican)
MAUREEN R. REGO (Republican)
POLLY G. ALLEN (Independent)

Town Clerk (Two-year term)
CAROL A. WORDELL (Republican)

Town Moderator (Two-year term)
SCOTT A. MORRISON (Republican)

All candidates for local office, whatever their party affiliations, ideologies, or opinions, deserve the respect and gratitude of the rest of us town residents and citizens. Our fellow citizens are making the important, and sometimes thankless, civic commitment to run for and, if victorious, serve in public office.

As we voters decide who should represent us in administering town government during the immediate years ahead, we have a responsibility to take seriously their opinions, their positions and records, and their qualifications for the offices they seek.

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Questions people ask about Little Compton politics, government, and history

Over the course of several decades, I have run for Little Compton elected town office (Budget Committee, Town Moderator, Town Council) eight times, by my count, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. (I was also once elected as Moderator though I was not a declared candidate after serving three previous terms; my name therefore wasn’t on the ballot. No one else had declared for the office in 2012, so I was elected and agreed to serve another term on the basis of receiving the most write-in votes.) I have also served in a number of appointed town positions (Library Trustee, Charter Review Commission [twice], election official). Finally, I have frequently been active and outspoken as a citizen on a variety of local issues. As a result of this varied experience, I am often asked about the operations of town government, the mechanics of elections, and other matters of town history. As those acquainted with me know, I am not reluctant to offer my opinions, usually with two provisos: 1) I am not a lawyer. 2) You get what you pay for.

Future posts in this series may consider:

  • Why doesn’t the town have nonpartisan local elections?
  • What is the Home Rule Charter? How can it be amended?
  • Can the funds raised by the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy transfer tax be used for public purposes other than land conservation, such as “affordable” housing?

In this post, I’ll address one of the questions that I have been asked from time to time:

Does the top vote getter for Little Compton Town Council at each biennial General Election automatically become Town Council President?

No, the top vote getter for Little Compton Town Council does not automatically become Town Council President. All five Town Council members serve concurrently for two-year terms. None of their terms are staggered (unlike, say, members of the five-person School Committee, who are elected for four-year staggered terms). Thus, at each biennial election voters are able to cast their votes for up to five candidates for Council. There is no separate election for the office of Town Council President. 

As a political and legal matter, the five candidates elected to Town Council every two years are the only voters who have the legal right and political opportunity to elect who among them will serve as Council President (and Vice President) during their term. The Council President is thus the first among equals. He or she is not the equivalent of a “mayor” or “town administrator.”

By town ordinance, the Council elects its officers at the first meeting after election when the electees have all been certified for and sworn into office. The Town Clerk presides over that election. Members nominate candidates. A nominee receiving a majority of the Council members present wins the election for President. If all five members are present, a majority of three can elect the President.

In casting their votes for Council President, Council members need not give any formal consideration to the number and order of votes each received in the general election. As a practical and political matter, it is more likely that the Council President will be elected from among the partisan majority represented on the Council, regardless of the number of votes each member of that majority received. The Council member elected President may or may not have been the top vote getter from among all five members elected or from among the party members that constitute the majority.

Partisan elections at the November general election for most local offices first took place in Little Compton in 1944. Since then, there have been numerous instances when the Council President elected by fellow members was not the top vote getter in the election at which they were all voted into office. This practice is entirely consistent with state law and the town’s Home Rule Charter. It also reflects the political reality of the town’s electoral framework.

Though there are other pre-2000 precedents, the results of Town Council elections from 2000 to 2022 provide the most recent examples:

  • In 2000, the top two vote getters for Town Council were Democrats Abigail Brooks and Bill Mackintosh (both close friends of mine). But the next three Council electees, in order of votes received, were Republicans Gary Mataronas, Deborah Sullivan, and Jane Cabot. Thus, the Republicans held the Council majority. They elected Jane Cabot as President, though she had garnered the fewest votes of the five Council members elected.
  • In 2002, five Republicans swept to victory in the Council election. Jane Cabot chose not to run that year, after a long tenure on the Council (interrupted between 1990 and 1992, when Democrats controlled all Council seats for what I believe was the one and only time in Little Compton history). The five Republicans elected, in order from highest to lowest number of votes received, were: Gary Mataronas, Paul Golembeske (elected to the Council for the first time), Joe Maiato, Bill Hutson, and Donald Gomez. Mr. Gomez, with the fewest general election votes, was elected Council President by his Republican colleagues.
  • In 2004–which I think of as a “musical chairs” election–there were six candidates for the five Council seats. The four Republicans elected, in order of votes received, were Gary Mataronas, Paul Golembeske, Bob Mushen (elected for the first time), and Ted Bodington (also elected for the first time). Democrat Bill Brown was elected as the fifth highest vote getter. Council President Donald Gomez was thus ousted from office. The Republican Council majority then elected Bob Mushen, third highest vote getter, as Council President. He has been re-elected to the Council and as Council President in every election since then, serving 18 years to date.
  • In 2006, there were only five candidates for Council, all Republicans. They included the four incumbents: Mushen, Mataronas, Golembeske, and Bodington. They were joined by Charles Appleton, Jr. This Republican quintet held office continually for the next 12 years, re-elected in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016. From 2006 through 2020 Mr. Mushen has been the top vote getter in every Council election. As noted, he has also been elected Council President for every Council term from 2004 to the present.
  • In elections from 2006 through 2016 the Republican Town Council incumbents faced either no competition or limited competition. In 2008, Democrat Brett McKenzie was the sole competitor. The Republicans ran unopposed in 2010 and 2012. In 2014, Democrat Cheryl Comley was the sole competitor. In 2016, an ember of growing opposition to one-party control began to glow: Jeremy Allen and Jim Tumber ran as Independents, Matthew Gillette as a Libertarian.
  •  In 2018, the first local election during the Trump era, Democrats fielded a full slate of five Town Council candidates for the first time in 16 years, including Andrew Iriarte-Moore, Karen Ryan, Jeremy Allen, Heath Comley, and I. Republican Chuck Appleton chose not to run that year. Monica Hopton ran in his place, along with the four other Republican incumbents. For the first time since 2004, Democrats achieved some electoral success in the Council election. Andrew Iriarte-Moore and I were elected; Andrew was the second highest vote getter (1026 votes) after Bob Mushen (1085 votes); I came in fifth out of the five elected, nudging out my fellow Democrat Karen Ryan by only eight votes. A swing of only a handful of votes among Paul Golembeske (954 votes), me (952 votes), and Karen Ryan (944 votes) would have produced a Democratic majority on the Council for the first time since the 1990 election. A one-vote miss is as good as a 100-vote mile in elections, though. In any case, the tight 2018 Council election proved that every vote counts in local elections in a small community like Little Compton. By way of illustrative speculation concerning the original question posed, I can attest that if we Democrats had achieved a Council majority in 2018, we almost certainly would have elected a Democrat as Council President that year, even if a Republican had been top vote getter.
  • In 2020, the Republicans fielded only their three long-serving incumbents–Bob Mushen, Gary Mataronas, and Paul Golembeske. The Democrats offered a full slate of five candidates: incumbent Andrew Iriarte-Moore, Anya Wallack, Patrick McHugh, Nicole Barnard, and Jeremy Allen. (I had chosen not to seek re-election.) In order of votes received, the four incumbents were re-elected: Mushen (1492 votes), Mataronas (1421 votes), Golembeske (1301 votes), and Iriarte-Moore (1261 votes). The fifth electee was Anya Wallack (1201 votes). Mr. Mushen was elected Council President. Ms. Wallack resigned during the first year of her term, to take a new job out-of-state. She was replaced by the next highest vote getter in the most recent election for her seat, Patrick McHugh, as Section 406 of the Home Rule Charter provides.

What’s the Town Council President’s Job?

As a matter of practice, tradition, and Little Compton politics in recent decades (or at least during the last 35 years and more of my personal observation and participation), Council Presidents have assumed and wielded considerable administrative and day-to-day control over town affairs. In some regards this practice has evolved naturally, as the centuries-old traditions of small-town New England government have evolved. In this time-honored form of local democracy, all voters approve a budget and taxes at Town Meeting and delegate administrative authority to elected Council members and other officials, often part-time volunteers receiving modest or no financial compensation for their service. Town Council members’ annual compensation, as approved at the 2022 Financial Town Meeting, is $5,200 for the Council President and $2,132 for each of the four other Council members.

However, it has been something of a de facto qualification, though not a specific legal requirement, that the Council President be expected and be able to commit considerable daytime hours to the position, in addition to attending Council meetings. Thus, Council Presidents have customarily been chosen from among those who are retired, self-employed, or otherwise have the means and ability to devote such time to their undefined duties. This unwritten expectation disqualifies or discourages some Town Council members from seeking or being considered for the position, as they cannot expect to vie for or hold the position of Council President. The same expectation also discourages some citizens from running for the office of Town Council at all. The result, as I have sometimes described it, is a Council where the majority of members are effectively a “junior varsity,” relying on the Council President for much basic information and for cues for Council action. 

Here’s how the Home Rule Charter, as approved by town voters, describes the position’s duties:

Section 404
President and Vice President.

The Council shall elect from among its members a President and a Vice President, each of whom shall serve at the pleasure of the Council. The President shall preside at all meetings of the Council and shall be recognized as the head of the Town government. The Vice President shall act as President during the absence of the President.

In addition, the Town Code defines the position, in an ordinance adopted by the Council and little changed since 1993 (prior to the adoption of the Charter and the establishment of the position of Town Administrator), as follows:

§ 2-1.2 Officers.
a. The officers of the Council shall be a President and a Vice-President.

b. The President:
1. Shall preside over Council meetings;
2. Shall have at Council meetings:
(a) Code of the Town of Little Compton;
(b) Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised;
(c) Current list of Councilor’s assignments;
(d) Current list of Town officers and employees;
(e) Current list of Town boards, committees and commissions, with terms of office.
3. May call a special meeting of the Council;
4. Shall call a special meeting of the Council at the written request of two Councilors;
5. Shall have the primary duty of Administration/Finance/Law ex officio.
6. Shall serve as the Local Emergency Management Agency Director, unless another is appointed by vote of the Council.

c. The Vice-President:
1. Shall assume the duties of the President in the absence of the President;
2. Shall have the duty of Administration/Finance/Law ex officio as assigned by the Council.

The wild card in this ordinance is Section 2-1.2 b. 5., the meaning and scope of which appears to be susceptible to broad interpretation and application, i.e.:

“The President . . . [s]hall have the primary duty of Administration/ Finance/Law ex officio.”

Thus, the actual legally specified duties of the Council President, by Charter and Town Code, can appear to be at once both narrowly limited and broadly vague, providing an energetic, ambitious officeholder the opportunity to fill a political void. As a practical and political matter, based on my own long-time observation and my two years of service on the Council, the Council President is provided as much leeway and authority as fellow Council members allow, either by active directive or tacit acquiescence. In any case, a majority of any Council has the authority to establish these limits on the Council President’s powers and duties. The exercise of that authority is a fundamentally political, and sometimes partisan, choice.

From my own personal, first-hand, and brief service on the Council, especially as a member of the Council partisan minority, I can attest that it can sometimes be a challenge for a Council member to secure information and data needed to consider and make decisions on behalf of the town. A Council President is in a position to maintain tight control over such information. Thus, it can be difficult for a Council member to know what he or she doesn’t know. This may sound to some like political and partisan sour grapes on my part or a merely personal bias. But I believe that, for better or worse, the expansive authority Little Compton’s Council Presidents have wielded for some time has been a matter of political reality, perhaps no matter the membership and partisan composition of the Town Council.

Only relatively recently, and in fits and starts, has the town, through adoption and amendment of its Home Rule Charter, authorized and filled a full-time position of “Town Administrator,” appointed by the Town Council to oversee many of the day-to-day operations of town government. In my observation, elected and appointed town officials are still adapting to the distribution of authority between and among the Town Administrator, the Council President, and the Council as a body.

Looking ahead, it is up to the voters, and the Town Council members they elect, to consider and determine how much authority and power the Council President can and should be granted. Again, this is a fundamentally political issue and choice. Politics don’t stand still, nor do the town’s needs and priorities.

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(A question that has nothing to do with elections or politics)

How did Little Compton’s “Pike’s Peak” get its name?

The western tip of Little Compton’s Commons is traditionally referred to as “Pike’s Peak.” For much of the last century, it has been an open space, used for civic and public functions, including, among other activities, Memorial Day celebrations, a site for various permanent memorials to the town’s military veterans, the United Congregational Church annual summer fair, holiday tree lightings and displays, and vigils and demonstrations.

A Methodist Church stood on “Pike’s Peak,” at the western tip of Little Compton Commons, from 1872 until 1942. (Image courtesy of Little Compton Historical Society)

But how is it that this particular sliver of public space shares a name with a well-known and iconic Colorado 14,115-foot summit in the Rocky Mountains? The only source I find (also cited on the Little Compton Historical Society’s website) is a brief passage from Notes on Little Compton, published by the historical society in 1970. This entertaining hodgepodge of a book represents the joint efforts of two local historians, both estimable descendants of long-time Little Compton families, who each devoted decades to documenting and preserving the town’s heritage. As its title page relates, Notes on Little Compton was assembled as follows: “From records collected by Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, edited, annotated, and arranged by Carlton C. Brownell.”

An entry on page 227 of Notes reads in full:

How Pike’s Peak was Named, Told by Manuel Camara.

One of the Wilburs who lived in the house later called the Meeting House Inn had been on the 1849 gold rush. He was a drinking man who often had to be helped home after an evening out. One night friends found him on the road muttering “Pike’s Peak or bust”. They guided him along but when he reached this point of land on the Common, he would go no farther, claiming he had reached Pike’s Peak.

Unless and until another credible source for the name surfaces, the origin of the appellation “Pike’s Peak” for this significant public space survives by oral attribution from one well-known Little Compton personality, Manuel Camara. His colorful tale tactfully omitted identifying individually the well-traveled member of one of the town’s largest families who reputedly “reached Pike’s Peak” after a besotted night on the town.

It’s a good story. I see no reason to doubt its accuracy.

The namesake of Colorado Pike’s Peak was the American military officer and explorer Zebulon Pike. On the second of his two expeditions during the first decade of the 19th century to explore the newly acquired American lands comprising the Louisiana Purchase, Pike’s party in November 1806 first sighted the Colorado mountain later named for him. They attempted to reach the summit but were thwarted by deep snow and dwindling food supplies. A Minnesota historical museum, located in the terrain traversed by his earlier expedition in search of the Mississippi River’s source, provides a generous defense of Pike’s somewhat ambiguous historical reputation.

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