Connections or experience?

Incumbent candidate with most votes passed over for former Cranston city councilwoman

Posted 2/7/23

The City of Cranston’s five-member Probate Judge Advisory Commission (PJAC) interviewed three candidates and voted 4-1 to recommend reappointing George M. Cappello.

The City Council, …

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Connections or experience?

Incumbent candidate with most votes passed over for former Cranston city councilwoman


The City of Cranston’s five-member Probate Judge Advisory Commission (PJAC) interviewed three candidates and voted 4-1 to recommend reappointing George M. Cappello.

The City Council, however, voted to appoint a different candidate, former city councilor and mayoral candidate Cynthia M. Fogarty.

Fogarty received just two votes after appearing at the PJAC’s three-hour meeting.

‘Up the river’

“I find it absolutely disgusting,” said Fred White Jr., the advisory commission’s newest member. “It’s just a bunch of froth; just a waste of time. Something’s wrong. Something’s radically wrong. Government doesn’t function the way it ought to.”

White said he was recruited to serve on the commission just days before the Dec. 20 meeting. He insists he was asked to join the commission by his longtime neighbor, Cynthia “Cindy” Fogarty, the city’s new probate judge.

White said no one told him how to vote; not exactly.

“Why else would she want me on?” White asked earlier this week. “I said to my son after, I feel that Cindy sold me up the river here.”

White voted for Fogarty during the PJAC meeting, but he insists he only cast the vote in her favor because he was convinced Cappello was the only rational appointment.

“When I saw he was going to get it, I said, ‘Good, I can vote for Cindy,’” White said Monday. “A few days later I find out that Cindy got the damn job. It all seems very strange to me.”

Fogarty served on Cranston City Council from 2003 to 2007. In 2008, she unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat against Republican Allan Fung. And in 2022, she was elected to serve on the District 17 Representative District and State committees.

‘A fresh start’

Fogarty’s appointment was championed by fellow Democrat and newly installed president of Cranston City Council Jessica M. Marino. Marino was the lone city councilor to attend the Dec. 20 PJAC meeting. She watched the proceedings but did not participate.

“I actually attended the meeting,” Marino said this week. “I know firsthand what they heard; what they said. And that Commission itself is advisory. It is not the ultimate decider of who is to sit in the seat of the probate judge.”

Marino said she was “in support of placing a different lawyer” on the bench in Cranston Probate Court.

“I take very seriously the commission,” she said Monday. “I was the only council member who took the time to sit through the whole (PJAC meeting) … I didn’t interject. I respect the commission. I’m a lawyer; I’m not someone who’s unfamiliar. I respect their contributions. But it is advisory.”

Marino said she took the commission’s advice under consideration, but decided the city’s Probate Court needed “a fresh start.”

The “seat is temporary,” she said, and not a “lifetime appointment.”

Cappello, who has served as Cranston’s Probate Judge for the past four years, said he was expecting an appointment to a third term on the bench.

“I was hopeful and confident that I would be appointed for another term,” Cappello said. “I had attended to the judicial duties of the Probate Judge in the City of Cranston conscientiously and devoted substantial time, on a daily basis, for the last four years and have brought the Cranston Probate Court to a level of excellence in my opinion. I have decided more than 2,500 cases during that time. I was indeed surprised that I was not reappointed.”

Block vote

On Inauguration Night, Jan. 2, Fogarty and six other judges were appointed by City Council via block vote. The vote broke on party lines: the five Democrats on City Council voted for the slate of new judges, while the four Republicans voted against.

Prior to the vote, Republican council members tried to split up the vote, and take the candidates for judgeships in Cranston individually. They were unsuccessful.

Democratic Majority Leader and Ward 3 Councilman John P. Donegan made the motion to approve the judge appointments as a block.

Ward 5 Councilman Christopher G. Paplauskas, however, argued for considering the judge appointments one-by-one.

“I feel that every person that is up for appointment for a municipal court position brings different aspects of their resume and background to the table and I do think that each one should be voted on separately,” Paplauskas said. “That’s the way it’s been done in the past … It’s been done in the past that way, it’s not always the right way to do it … It’s not a business license we’re taking as a block. It’s a position for municipal court.”

Republican Minority Leader and citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli made a motion to continue the discussion on judge appointments to the full City Council’s meeting in January.

“My caucus has recently learned of some concerning issues with regard to some nominees,” Renzulli said on Jan. 2. “And we just have questions. I think this is such an important position. And I want the public’s confidence in the integrity of our court … to be full. I would like us to maybe talk about some of these issues, where we have an opportunity to go into executive session rather than this ceremonious meeting.”

Ward 6 City Councilman Matthew R. Reilly used Marino’s own words against her, while arguing for a continuance on the judge appointments.

“With your speech tonight about inclusivity and the importance of a position of a judge in our city, I do not think this is something that we should treat so cavalier as to put five people through who are going to maintain the laws of our city over the next two years,” Reilly said. “I think it needs to be vetted. There are certainly questions that need to be answered to determine that we have the right people for that position.”

Post-vote debate

Over the next few weeks, the city’s Republicans and Democrats traded barbs via press release.

The Republican caucus took aim at two judge appointments, but concluded with an argument against Fogarty’s placement as Probate Judge.

“We have a Probate Judge Advisory Commission who makes selections based on merit and qualifications,” Paplauskas said in the press release. “On Dec. 20 … they did not vote to recommend Attorney Fogarty … While we are not bound by this recommendation, the report was not even read into the record.”

“Probate matters are highly technical and the public deserves to know the most qualified person is handling these matters,” said Reilly, who is also an attorney.

Cranston’s Republicans and Democrats have sparred over judicial appointments in the past. The minority caucus tends to argue to take judicial appointments individually, while the majority tends to prefer block-voting.

“With Majority Leader, Councilman John Donegan, making a motion to take the slate of nominated judges ‘as a block,’ the new Democrat Majority veered from past tradition that allowed for individual votes on each judicial candidate, preventing any substantive discussion on any nominees to the Municipal and Probate Courts,” Renzulli said in the press release. “Pushing through a block vote for these important positions of trust was disrespectful to the public and the judiciary. The new Democratic leadership treated these appointments like we were renewing mobile food truck licenses.”

Ward 4 Councilman Richard D. Campopiano questioned Fogarty’s appointment, “given her deep-rooted partisan activities as a former Democratic candidate for Mayor of Cranston and elected member of the State Democratic Committee from District 17.

“This stinks of political favoritism,” Campopiano said.

The Democratic caucus issued a press release labeling the Republican press release “unnecessary and untruthful.

“This fictional tale accuses the Democratic majority of Council of ‘suppressing any real vetting’ and ‘preventing any substantive discussion on any nominees to the Municipal and Probate Courts,” according to a press release from the city’s Democrats. “This is absolutely untrue.”

Marino pointed out that no Republican members of City Council attended the PJAC meeting, and council members had the opportunity to raise concerns during the Inauguration Night meeting.

“Instead of taking the opportunity to express or vet any candidate that may have been of concern by the Republican Caucus, they did not do so, and over a week later they put out a press release that reads like a tall tale,” according to the Democrats’ press release. “The Republican councilmembers chose not to vet the candidates at that time despite being given the opportunity to do so before any vote on the judicial nominees. The Republican council members cannot cry foul when the opportunity was in fact provided, and they opted not to vet any candidates.”

Vetted or not

Joseph Manera Jr., chairman of the Probate Judge Advisory Commission (PJAC) and a former Probate Judge himself, said the Dec. 20 meeting was adequate and thorough.

“Everyone had a chance to speak and answer questions,” Manera said, more than a month after the meeting. “At the end, George (Cappello), who has been probate judge for four years, did a credible job and got four votes.”

Manera said the commission was impressed with Cappello’s answers to their line of questioning, and his record throughout his last two terms.

“He was a very good probate judge,” Manera said. “Very diligent. He was in there every single day. He reviewed all the files. He did the best he could and he was a very good judge.”

Following the 4-1 vote to recommend Cappello for reappointment, the PJAC held a vote on Fogarty. Manera made a motion to recommend Fogarty; White seconded the motion.

The PJAC is composed of five members — three lawyers with expertise in probate law, Ann Marie Maccarone, Erica Laros and Manera; and two civilian members, White and Henry Palazzo.

According to the PJAC meeting’s unofficial minutes, the “motion failed on a tie vote with one abstention (Palazzo) … By majority vote of the Commission, it was the recommendation of the Commission to re-appoint Judge George Cappello as Probate Judge for the term 2023-2025.”

Manera said he’s fully aware that the PJAC merely offers “an advisory opinion.”

“City Council can accept it or deny it,” he said. “They’re not bound by this; it’s an advisory opinion. The council is free to do what they wish. They do what they want to do … It is what it is.”

Cappello left the meeting confident he would be re-appointed to lead Cranston’s Probate Court.

“The Probate Judge Advisory Commission determined that I was the only candidate qualified to serve as Probate Judge and the only candidate to receive a majority of the votes,” Cappello said this week. “The only negative vote I received was from Fred White, a neighbor of Cynthia Fogarty, put on the commission at the eleventh hour just before the hearing.”

Cappello recalled that about 12 hours after he met with the commission, he was informed by Marino that Fogarty would be appointed Probate Judge.

“I was offered the position of Auxiliary Judge, a demotion,” Cappello said. “I declined to accept this position. No explanation was provided for these decisions or for the rejection of the commission’s findings. No information was given as to when the City Council met to make these decisions and when and how these decisions were arrived at. There were approximately only 12 hours from the commission’s hearing conclusion for this decision to have been made.”

No one has questioned Cappello’s performance on the bench or record in the courtroom.

Only Marino said that she had some “hesitation … with Mr. Cappello.”

“During the time of COVID … there were struggles,” she said earlier this week. She said she heard of “a very long delay and reluctance to hear some matters” and possible “concerns of a backlog with the court.”

“I’m sure COVID times were responsible as well,” Marino explained, but said she was short of time and had to end the interview on Monday. She said that her vote was just “one of nine.”

“It’s not for me alone to decide,” Marino said. “Mr. Cappello’s service was great that he gave it, but it was a temporary thing. And they’re both qualified.”

Cappello said that “unfortunately, a preconceived political decision by the City Council President and the majority members (and beyond to include some of our state elected officials serving the City of Cranston) outweighed qualifications.”

“There are many complex issues coming before the Cranston Probate Court affecting the lives of our citizens forever,” Cappello warned. “This is no place for an apprenticeship or for unqualified individuals determined by the commission to be making these important decisions in my opinion. This is a disservice to the Probate Court, its nominee, its clerks, the members of the bar and the citizens of our city.”

While the decision has been made, and the city’s new Probate Judge has taken the oath of office, Cappello’s optimistic the community discussion has just begun.

“I am hopeful the members of the City Council take this a step further and schedule a public meeting to determine how this appointment happened as well as all the other judicial appointments in this city,” Cappello said. “I am also hopeful that the mayor involves himself because this decision affects all residents of our city.”

Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins, a Republican, has not publicly weighed in on the Probate Judge appointment. Via Chief of Staff Anthony Moretti, Hopkins said he respects the process.

The mayor’s office sees “no violation of the process; it was perfectly legal,” Moretti said. “They operated within their authority.”

Despite City Council’s decision to appoint someone else to sit on the city’s Probate Court bench, Moretti called Cappello “a superstar.”

“We applaud Judge Cappello for doing a magnificent job over the years,” Moretti said. “Both his skillset and humanity … and the clerical dedication he had to that position … we certainly would like that to be recognized.”

The annual salary for Cranston’s Probate Judge “has been fixed at $17,500, and has remained the same for approximately 30 years or so,” according to Cappello.

Allegations of ‘sexism’

The Democrats’ press release regarding judge appointments alleges sexism may be at the root of complaints with the process.

“The fact is that the Republicans are taking issue with two female judicial appointees; one of which, the Honorable Cynthia Fogarty, is now the first female probate judge in Cranston,” according to the press release. “Both women individually have well over 20 years of experience as good standing lawyers in Rhode Island with the education, experience, and institutional knowledge to fulfill their judicial roles.”

The Democrats insist that the “attempt by Republicans to diminish the education and experience of Judge Fogarty and reduce her appointment to mere ‘political favoritism’ is rather incredulous,” according to the press release.

“Regarding the Probate Judge Advisory Commission, the fact is that it is only that, advisory, and its findings were public at its hearing and distributed to all city council members by the clerk,” Cranston’s Democratic leadership argued. “The fact remains that the public was very much informed at the public hearing of the Probate Judge Advisory Commission in December. The truth is, all members of the Cranston City Council were provided the resumes of all judicial nominees days in advance of our inaugural meeting as distributed by the city clerk consistent with past procedure. Republican council members had the opportunity to vet all candidates, discuss their qualifications, and debate the issue on the night of the vote. Despite these opportunities, the Republican members chose not to. While the Cranston Republicans are busy weaving tall tales, and self-titling them as such, Cranston Democrats are focused on leading our City Council and working in the new term to address the myriad of issues facing Cranston residents.”

Meanwhile, Cappello said he has asked Cranston’s city solicitor “for an opinion as to whether the open meetings law was violated when the majority members of the council met and appointed the probate judge.”

He has also offered to be of service to Fogarty during her transition into the role.

“I have offered my assistance to the new probate judge for pending cases I have been involved in and wished her well,” Cappello said. “I will, however, stay with this issue until the behind-the-scenes facts, are fully disclosed.”

Fogarty did not return calls for comment.

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  • Robferri2426

    Okay it is time to let this go. The Democratic Majority has spoken and made their choices. Does everyone forget the mess the Republicans made two years ago with appointments? I was one then I remember it well. Because certain appointments were promised the appointment process turned into a circus. How fast people forget. Let it go and move on. There are many bigger issues to tackle in this City. Every appointment this year was qualified and deserved !

    Friday, February 10, 2023 Report this