City must pay $60,000 in settlement with domestic violence agency

City must pay $60,000 in settlement with domestic violence agency

WOONSOCKET – The city of Woonsocket will pay $60,000 to Sojourner House, a Providence-based nonprofit operating an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence in the city, to settle a lawsuit alleging the city unfairly withheld $35,000 in grant funds from the agency last year.

The settlement, announced last week by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, stemmed from a disagreement between the two parties in spring of last year. According to documents presented as evidence during the lawsuit, the agency was notified in 2017 that they would receive a total of $35,000 in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), a federally funded grant program overseen by the city’s Department of Planning and Development. The funds were intended to support the agency’s services in Woonsocket, which include an emergency shelter and apartments for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

However, in January of 2018, Christopher Carcifero, the city’s deputy director of housing and community development, notified Sojourner House that the funds would be withheld due to concerns at one of the agency’s properties. In a response, Vanessa Volz, executive director of Sojourner House, acknowledged some of Carcifero’s concerns, adding the agency was in the process of resolving some issues with the physical structure, but denied others, saying the city’s report contained several inaccuracies. After several months of correspondence, the city notified Sojourner House they would not receive the 2017-2018 grant funds and would be barred from participating in any future CDBG applications.

While the consent order filed in U.S. District last week does not admit fault on the part of the city, the city agreed to release the $35,000 in grant funds and withdraw its suspension of Sojourner House participating in future CDBG applications. The city also agreed to pay $25,000 in attorney fees to the agency.

The ACLU, which filed suit on behalf of Sojourner House last August, maintains the city’s actions were a violation of first amendment rights and in direct retaliation to the agency’s attempts to seek state and federal assistance in resolving the dispute.

“This was a classic case of a municipal bureaucracy trampling on basic constitutional rights,” ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown said in a statement. “We are pleased that Sojourner House chose to stand up and fight the punitive actions taken against it, and that, as a result, their funding to serve some of the city’s most vulnerable populations has been restored.”

Volz highlighted the importance of the decision for members of the community who are survivors and victims of domestic violence, saying in a statement that requests for services have increased by more than 100 percent over the past year.

“These restored funds will allow us to better meet the needs of the survivors and victims who seek our services on a daily basis, 365 days a year,” she said.

The lawsuit highlights a concern raised by several city councilors last year regarding administration of the CDBG program. Last August, City Council President Daniel Gendron told The Valley Breeze that prior to 2018, recommendations on CDBG awards were forwarded to the council, which then issued a final vote of approval. In 2018, he said, this process did not take place, and the decision regarding Sojourner House and other grant awards was made solely by the Department of Planning and Development.

While the process is not yet complete for 2019, a recently scheduled agenda item indicates the city may be returning to its previous policy of seeking input from multiple boards. Tonight, March 21, the city’s Community Development Advisory Board is scheduled to meet to continue a discussion on this year’s CDBG applications. On the agenda for the meeting is a plan to discuss “the CDBG recommendations to the City Council.” Gendron said he has not yet received confirmation that the council will be voting on the grant awards but is hopeful they will once again have a say in the process.

Councilor John Ward, addressing the lawsuit during Monday’s council meeting, said he plans to introduce an ordinance at a future date that would ensure the council continues to have oversight of the CDBG process. Ward said he believes the city charter already grants the council jurisdiction over the grants as “special funds” but wants to codify the council’s authority to avoid another “clash” in the future.

“I was disturbed by this when it happened. I was disturbed that we had to settle it and pay out money,” he said.

City Solicitor John DeSimone declined to comment to The Breeze on the lawsuit but told councilors the settlement came about as a result of several negotiation sessions.