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Residents call for O’Neill to step down

April 30, 2014

Residents packed town hall on Monday, many of them calling for South Kingstown Town Councilor James O’Neill to resign.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN - Twenty-three South Kingstown residents, including Town Council President Ella Whaley, Rep. Teresa Tanzi and the South Kingstown Teachers Association asked past town council president and current Councilor Member James O’Neill for his formal resignation at a town council meeting on Monday night.

Seats were scarce in the council chambers as an estimated 50 residents made their support for Whaley, who claims that O’Neill threatened her, known.

The threatening comments, which O’Neill later referred to as ‘“stupid and arrogant,” were made during the last town council meeting during a brief recess. O’Neill was heard through the microphone saying, “She’s lucky I didn’t hit her.” He later acknowledged that the comment was directed at Whaley.

The first to speak was Miranda Oakley, a blind South Kingstown resident who said that Whaley supported her throughout her battles with her disability.

“I am here tonight on behalf of my advocate, Ella Whaley,” she said. “Ella has done a wonderful job advocating for members of South Kingstown with disabilities - something often overlooked by public officials and educators from this town. She has dedicated countless hours of her time assisting me through countless obstacles. As a member of the community, I was appalled that a town council member threatened Ella Whaley directly. Public officials should never threaten or disrespect people. This is why I am asking Mr. James O’Neill to please consider stepping down from the town council.”

The barrage began, bringing forth personal stories from members of the public who claim that O’Neill has bullied and intimidated them in the past.

“I’m here to share some of my personal experiences so the public can understand the depth of his actions,” said Teresa Tanzi. “Had the threats of physical violence been an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be here tonight. That, sadly, is not the case. Councilman O’Neill has used his physical size and stature to intimidate people both physically and verbally for years. His anger has led me to avoid him at all costs. If I see him in a room, I go to the other end.”

Tanzi cited a specific incident at the polls last year that led her to be fearful of O’Neill.

“When Mr. O’Neill was unlawfully campaigning in the 50-foot no-campaigning zone, I respectfully approached him and respectfully asked him to go outside of the line where he was supposed to be by law,” she said. “The deeply personal vitriolic insults that flew out of his mouth like they were just waiting there to be unleashed combined with his literal getting in my face was unparalleled. He raised his voice and his campaign sign - a wooden sign on a stake - and held it up to my face.”

Jerilyn Perry, a former school committee member,

“A couple days after that meeting I was in the grocery store when I saw Mr. O’Neill,” she said. “He approached me in a way that was very intimidating. I quickly ran out to my car and called my husband. I was grateful that I was in a public place so that I could call for help if you lost your temper completely. I’ve never seen anyone treat members of this town the way that you do. Shame on you. You need to resign, Mr. O’Neill.”

Ella Whaley’s husband H.R. Whaley received a standing ovation from the gathered crowd with just a few words.

“I’m here to support my wife,” he said. “I love my wife. Those are my only comments.”

Comments then moved to the town council table, with Whaley sitting on an opposite side of the table from O’Neill.

“Sometimes it’s better to put your foot in your mouth rather than open it,” said councilor Paul Donnelly, speaking first.

Councilor Meg Healy offered an apology to those who were in attendance at the previous meeting and then cited the town charter, which does not allow a town council to vote out another member.

“We have all been put here in these seats because of each and every one voting for us,” she said. “Are we always right? No. But we try to be. I do not support Councilman O’Neill’s actions. Should Mr. O’Neill decide to resign, that will be his own decision. We cannot force any resignation. I hope it can be solved.”

Through shouts of “step down” and “he has to go”, Council Vice President Carol Hagan McEntee spoke on the incident.

“I obviously can’t agree with what Mr. O’Neill said,” she said. “It was totally unacceptable and inexcusable under any circumstances. What I would like to do, knowing that we don’t have the power to remove anyone from the town council, is restore dignity to the council chambers and move on with town business.”

After an apology from O’Neill to the Siravo family Whaley, and “those who were offended by his comments”, Whaley called for O’Neill’s resignation personally.

“For 16 years I’ve devoted my time to this community,” she said. “This threatening behavior must stop now. Our elected officials should be role models for our community and be in control of their own actions at all times. Our town deserves better. Mr. O’Neill’s apology is no apology.”

“Mr. O’Neill, I ask for your resignation,” she said, receiving applause. “I ask other town council members to join me in requesting his resignation.”

None of the other town councilors joined her in the request.

“To me, that kind of condones the behavior and makes it acceptable,” said Whaley after the meeting.

The crowd promised to be there at every town council meeting until November or O’Neill steps down and several members voiced their commitment to withhold votes from any councilor that does not take a strong stand against O’Neill.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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