Election officials in Exeter began verifying hundreds of signatures Tuesday that were gathered in a bid to recall four town councilors over their support for changing the way the town issues concealed weapons.
If the town's Board of Canvassers determines that enough signatures are legitimate, a special election would be scheduled for later this fall. The four petitions each have about 600 signatures -- well over the 496 required to prompt a recall election.
The four council members supported a proposal that would have given the responsibility for issuing permits to the state attorney general's office. The town clerk now issues the permits, but the councilors said the clerk doesn't have the resources to conduct adequate background checks.
Legislation in the General Assembly that would have authorized the switch never made it to a vote. But hundreds of residents in this rural community of 6,000 people 20 miles south of Providence said the council's support for the change shows they don't respect public opinion. About 300 people -- most in opposition -- attended a meeting on the proposal last spring.
Gun rights advocates say it's potentially more difficult to get a permit through the attorney general's office. But Lance Edwards, an Exeter resident, said the recall effort is as much about government accountability as it is about gun laws.
"It's a constitutional issue," he said. "They've turned their backs on Exeter residents."
The four officials being targeted by the recall effort are Council President Arlene Hicks and council members William Monahan, Robert Johnson and Calvin Ellis. A fifth member, Councilman Raymond Morrissey, Jr., voted against the resolution asking the General Assembly to make the change.
Monahan, who has served on the council for seven years, said the attorney general's office could conduct more thorough background checks than the town clerk. Exeter has no police department and relies on the state police to perform law enforcement.
"I'm not happy about it," Monahan said of the effort to oust him. "But the way the town charter is written, they can recall me if they don't like the color of the tie I'm wearing."
The Board of Canvassers expects to need a few days to compare the names, addresses and signatures on the petition with the city's voting registration and other records. Once the petitions are approved a special election would be held within 20 to 60 days.
If the four council members are recalled their seats would be filled by three candidates who lost the last council election. The fourth seat would be filled by a council appointment.
Exeter has never held a recall election in its history, but debates about gun policy have sparked similar ouster efforts elsewhere. Last month two Democratic Colorado state senators -- including the Senate President -- were recalled over their support for changes to gun laws in that state.