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Williams Actions Were Out of Order — But Probably Not Criminal

A still shot from the video showing Henry Williams speaking to the Warwick City Council on Dec. 8. He is facing a criminal charge of disrupting a public meeting as a result.
A still shot from the video showing Henry Williams speaking to the Warwick City Council on Dec. 8. He is facing a criminal charge of disrupting a public meeting as a result.






Update, Jan. 21, 1:15 p.m.:

A trial date of March 4 has been set in the case of Henry T. Williams Jr., according to online court records. Here’s the video of the incident.

Original post, Jan. 20, 5:30 a.m.:

Warwick, RI — When does a citizen’s actions rise from impolite to illegal?

That’s the question to be put before a judge on Wednesday, Jan. 21, when Henry T. Williams Jr. is scheduled to appear at pretrial for his behavior on Dec. 8, 2014 at the city council’s ordinance committee meeting.


The case boils down to the idea that Williams disrupted the session so egregiously that he should face criminal sanctions.

For his part, Williams told the Post that he feels he’s the target of harassment from Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, going back to before the 2014 primary, and that he’s been dealing with a neighbor’s smoky backyard fires for five years now.

[Vella-Wilkinson had not replied to requests for comment by Monday night.]

According to the Warwick Police Department, Williams “approached the councilwoman, yelled and screamed, and refused to return to his seat,” as reported by Rob Borkowski last week.

But video of the incident — posted publicly on the city council’s UStream channel — shows, arguably, a much different situation.

If this is the incident at the root of the criminal complaint against Williams — and the council’s recent vote to install new “panic buttons” in city hall — there are far more questions than answers stemming from the video of it.

How were Williams’s actions wrong?

Williams was trying to speak to the council at a time when they were not discussing the fire pit issue; Chairman Joseph Gallucci explains that to him in the one-minute clip. That’s a clear case of speaking out of order, and it goes against Robert’s Rules governing the decorum of a public meeting.

By alleging that Williams disrupted the meeting, prosecutors are taking the stance that he engaged in a type of disorderly conduct, which is punishable under Rhode Island General Law 11-11-1 by up to a $500 fine or a year in jail. [Click the link for the exact language.]

What led up to Williams’s actions?

Earlier in the committee meeting, committee members withdrew an ordinance proposed by Vella-Wilkinson to regulate backyard fire pits. Williams had been planning to speak about the issue, by his own statement in the video. When that didn’t happen, Williams approached the committee while it was discussing a different matter.

There’s also some other history that’s worth considering here — Williams ran for city council in the September primary last year, and the police reported that he had an argument with Vella-Wilkinson’s husband last spring — so, at the very least, it can’t be said that this is an isolated incident.

And, as also shown in the video, Williams says he’s been dealing with smoke from his neighbor’s fires for five years, so this isn’t a recent development, either.

What about the council’s reactions?

As the video shows, Williams engages in an argument with the panel, speaking loudly enough to be heard by the camera’s microphone. Gallucci and Councilman Edgar Ladouceur respond to him, with Gallucci explaining that the committee would get back to him, while Ladouceur loudly denounces Williams’s behavior as “terribly out of order.”

At no time, though, is anyone heard asking Williams to sit down — nor does Williams appear to physically approach Vella-Wilkinson, who remains seated and silent at the committee table.

What do the “panic buttons” do?

Basically, the “panic buttons” are manual alarms that anyone can trigger, alerting Warwick Police of something urgent at city hall.
The problem is, though, that in this case, it’s unlikely that a police officer would have arrived at council chambers quickly enough to affect the situation.

This also raises the question of why there is no assigned law enforcement official at council meetings. A number of municipalities retain a town sheriff or off-duty police officers to attend public meetings to handle times when the discussion gets too heated; that’s not the case in Warwick, though.

Should Williams face jail time over this?

In considering all of this, it’s difficult to say that Williams should bear the sole brunt of responsibility for the Dec. 8 incident. City councilors raised their voices, too, and arguably could have handled the situation in a far more civil manner.

That is not to say that Williams’s behavior was acceptable — or, indeed, that he shouldn’t face some kind of sanction.

Still, it’s a pretty long reach to say that standing in front of a council committee for about 60 seconds and pleading to be heard rises to the level of a misdemeanor offense that deserves a fine or jail time.

And even if, as it appears, Williams’s actions on Dec. 8 were the latest in a string of incidents involving him and Vella-Wilkinson, it’s a legally questionable strategy to try and bring those past actions into the current case — a judge might consider that prejudicial and exclude them.

Those moves smack of overreaction given what’s shown in the Dec. 8 video; indeed, if Williams gets convicted, it could hardly be called a victory for the council.

Conclusion: Henry Williams should face some kind of consequences for his actions on Dec. 8, but jail time would be excessive.

Related stories: 

Council OKs New Panic Buttons For City Hall

Video Shows Dec. 8 Confrontation Between Williams, Council

Joe Hutnak -
Author: Joe Hutnak - [email protected]

Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of Warwick Post. For Warwick Post-related inquiries or communications, email [email protected]

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