Chelsea Council Works Through Impasse to Make Recommendation to Drop Charges

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By Doug Marrin

At the February 16, 2021 meeting, Chelsea City Councilmember Tony Iannelli introduced a motion for the City to direct Chelsea Police Chief Ed Toth to drop all charges against protesters ticketed during a demonstration last summer.

For further reading, see the article Chelsea City Council Receives Independent Report on Events of July 31, 2020

In his explanation of the motion, Iannelli stated, “In light of the independent review of the CPD tactics that were utilized for issuing citations for impeding traffic during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, City Council should implore the Chief of Police to call off any further investigation into issuing these citations as well as drop and refund all charges that have been issued thus far.”

The motion was “to direct the Chief of Police to rescind and refund all citations for impeding traffic related to last summer’s protests and call off any further identification of protesters and issuing of future citations thereof.”

Chelsea has experienced a substantial public outcry against the tickets, with many people demanding that the City Council drop the charges, something the Council indicated it was inclined to do. However, after months of public demand for the Council to take action, the critical moment looked as though it might be tripped up over the language in the motion and the City Council's role in the judicial process.

City Attorney Peter Flintoft was in attendance to answer questions.

Councilmember Feeney asked, “Do we have the authority to undertake the motion?”

Mr. Flintoft responded with, “If you pass that motion, there's a question as to whether or not it's effective under your Charter. I think that's what you're referring to because it's the Chief of Police and the Police Department that has the right to issue the citations in your own Charter. So, objection to your motion, and I'm not giving an opinion because this is the first time I have seen this. But, there's going to be a question as to whether or not what you would do if the Police Chief and the Police Department refused to go along with your motion. And someone's gonna have to answer that.”

The Council was seeking clarification, specifically on the hierarchy of authority. From both public and council comments, the assumption was that the Police Chief and Police Department, being employees of the City, could be directed by the Council. Specifically, the City Council could require the police to drop the charges against those protestors. But Flintoft further explained, under the City Charter, the answer was yes, the Council could direct the Police Chief to drop the tickets, but he would not be obligated to comply. Furthermore, to make such a motion would put the Council in conflict with the Charter.

The Council faced a stalemate as it worked out what to do next. The Council was clearly in favor of eliminating the tickets but didn’t have the authority to do so. Mr. Flintoft also explained that removing the charges could set a precedent that would most likely complicate future court cases of the same nature.

Councilmember Iannelli voiced what seemed to be the frustration and sentiment of other council members. “I'm trying to work around here. I understand there are the legal implications about what we're doing and saying. We can go through with this motion and direct the Chief to rescind and refund. He has a right to refuse.”

“This motion is in response to a public outcry and overwhelming amount of letters that we've been receiving from the public about this situation,” he added.

“You're asking me to give you a way to get around language that's in the Charter,” answered Flintoft. “I can't do that. The Charter can be changed, and you can have other words to take the place where you want to get to. But if you adopt this at this time, the Chief will be faced with a division of loyalties.”

Mayor Johnson, who is an attorney, succinctly clarified the discussion, saying, “I think this is a challenging area, certainly, and everyone would like to uphold their duties and obligations, as well as follow the law. As I hear you say it, under our Charter, we don't have the authority to directly dismiss or rescind charges.”

“Correct,” answered Flintoft.

Councilmember Iannelli expressed his determination. “Mr. Fintoft hasn't really clarified for me the best way to put this motion forward tonight that stays within the realm of the City Charter. Although my understanding is that this motion can still go forward as it is, I'm all for amending this motion in whatever way is amicable. The fact of the matter is I want this matter brought forward tonight, and I want it voted on tonight.”

Councilmember Albertson broke the impasse by suggesting the motion be reworded as a recommendation instead of an order. In doing so, Mr. Flintoft stated that the Council “would not offend the Charter.”

The motion was then amended to be a recommendation.

Mayor Johnson summarized the motion before the Council. “The question that I have for Council is when you make this decision, you are making a decision of precedent.”

The Mayor explained to the Council that upon approving this motion, when another group protests under the same conditions—without a permit, impedes traffic—“the City would be unable to proceed with tickets going forward because the City would be open to Viewpoint Discrimination.”

“The question for Council seems to be whether we want to be able to enforce state law or not,” added Mayor Johnson.

The Mayor, however, told the Council that her more significant struggle with the motion was in regards to the role of City Council.

“I am concerned about Council making a decision and stepping into the role of the executive and the judicial branches without any standards about how to do that,” said the Mayor. “I have a real concern that we look carefully and understand what our standards will be both ethically and about which cases we're going to do it for.”

Councilmember Iannelli responded with, “Yes, we are setting a precedent. We're setting a precedent in terms of what we've been called to act upon in response to what's happened in our community. Is it our role? Yes, we are elected by the residents of this community to represent them.”

Councilmember Albertson echoed Iannelli. “There's no question that your argument is completely valid. But there's also no question that our community is demanding something beyond what the legal foundation is,” Albertson said. “While we may, in fact, go out on a very, very wobbly limb and set some sort of precedent by making this recommendation, I think that we have, as Mr. Iannelli just said, we do have a responsibility to the fervent voice of our community.”

The Council voted unanimously to recommend rescinding the tickets given out to the protesters.

The complete audio of the Council’s discussion is posted on the City’s website.

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