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Block Island, in a moped crisis, has a legislator with a conflict

You have to go back to 1984 to see the roots of the moped crisis now gripping Block Island, with an emergency call this week for Rhode Island State Police to come to the rescue of law enforcement on an island overwhelmed with unruly summer tourists.

A weekend fatal moped accident, following a recent alcohol-related car fatality, triggered an emergency meeting of the Town Council on Sunday to address the exploding moped problem.

Police Chief Vincent Carlone, in securing "significant" state police intervention, told the Block Island Times that mopeds are only part of a larger problem fueled by a disregard of laws in a surge of visitors during the pandemic summer.

"It's a carnival gone awry, and I don't have the staff to deal with this," the chief said.

Even before the weekend's fatal accident, a new coalition of residents and homeowners had organized a community meeting for Thursday on Zoom to address what many say has been a summer of mayhem, marked by horn-beeping, zig-zagging mopeds crowding out bikes, cars and pedestrians on narrow and winding island roads.

There have been more than 50 moped accidents, some requiring medical airlifts.

One town councilor wants to ban them.

One of the owners of a moped rental dealership on the island is Republican state Rep. Blake Filippi, the House minority leader, who represents Block Island, Charlestown and parts of Westerly and South Kingstown.

Filippi might be uniquely positioned to help Block Island secure legislation allowing the island to better regulate or even eliminate mopeds. But he seems unlikely to intervene, given his self-interest.

I reached out to Filippi's legislative office Monday to ask to speak to him about the growing moped crisis on the island. He didn't respond.

He said in May, during a Block Island Chamber of Commerce forum on pandemic issues, that mopeds should remain in business this summer despite an expected strain on the island's limited medical system.

"I've been an operator for a long time and the moped technology is much better these days and as a result the amount of accidents is much less than it used to be," he said then.

That doesn't sound like someone in Providence who might help islanders take charge of their moped destiny, as, well, the number of accidents, despite new technology, soars.

The island's war against mopeds began decades ago and reached one crescendo in 1984, when islanders, frustrated that the state Supreme Court had struck down a town ordinance regulating them and the legislature had refused to give them new home rule authority, began exploring a secession from Rhode Island. Connecticut and Massachusetts had both agreed to accept them.

"I think everybody's behind the revolution," then Treasurer Martha Ball, now a town councilor, told the New York Times in 1984. "I don't remember an issue in my lifetime that's brought people together like this."

Today, one Block Island moped dealer, John Leone, also rents them on Martha's Vineyard and has been blocking ongoing efforts in the Massachusetts legislature to pass a home rule law that would allow the island to regulate the motorized bikes.

Leone has hired lobbyists to fight Martha's Vineyard's initiative in the legislature to acquire the authority to control mopeds.

He probably doesn't need to hire lobbyists in Rhode Island. The House minority leader is apparently already in his corner.

If Rep. Filippi had called me back, I would have asked him if he has any remaining business ties with Block Island's beachfront Ballard's resort, which was founded by his father and has endured as one of the island's most popular party hot spots.

The representative fought in recent years in a series of lawsuits with family members over the assets of the business, at one time secretly tape recording a meeting with his mother and a brother, according to a court decision.

Many crowded ferries, big bars serving lots of liquor to visitors and a sense of lawlessness the police chief now calls a carnival atmosphere are all things islanders are going to need to address after the crazy summer of 2020 concludes.

Mopeds are a start.

They could use a representative in the state legislature who doesn't have an enormous conflict of interest.

It looks like that may not happen soon, since Filippi's only opposition this fall is a write-in candidate.  

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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