Council seeking greater public input

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 5:45pm

The Town Council spent its Jan. 8 work session primarily discussing goals and priorities for the coming year, during which an impassioned conversation arose about the need to improve public interaction.

Council members appeared frustrated with not being able to engage greater community participation in its policy discussions at Town Hall, while also feeling challenged in communicating important information to the public. First Warden Ken Lacoste and Town Manager Ed Roberge were absent from the meeting.

Councilor Chris Willi introduced the topic, but the conversation was fueled by resident David Lewis, who lauded Town Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick’s efforts with providing information on the town’s website. Lewis asked, “What else can be accomplished with public outreach? It’s a rhetorical question: what else should (the town) be doing?”

“I’ve asked some of my peers and they know nothing about what goes on with the town,” said Willi. “I would bring up a topic, and they had no idea” about it. “And, I’m like, ‘How do you have no idea?’” Willi said people can get information from the newspaper, “but what else is there?”

Willi said people once relied on “Block Island Cable (television channel) back in the day,” to get information, but that medium became antiquated. He said there is potential with broadband being installed for the town to utilize it for live streaming to inform the public.

Resident Molly O’Neill asked why the Town Council doesn’t currently live stream its meetings. “Somebody can just film it on a phone,” she said.

The council has said it is interested in live streaming, but it would require certain technology, and the town was not prepared to do that at this time.

Councilor Sven Risom said the council “needs to continue to do a better job with public outreach — to have more community dialogue. We need to increase that dialogue. It’s a two-way dialogue.”

“Outreach should be high on our list,” said Boudreau.

“Do you have any ideas?” asked Willi.

“I think through social media,” said Boudreau. “The problem is: everything stays in this room. We need to use social media. We need to figure it out.”

Council members agreed that the Town Council needs to utilize social media for its communications and public outreach efforts.

Fitzpatrick said the town intends to connect its new website, which is being designed, to social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Goals and priorities

Working from a draft document, the council touched on a variety of topics that could be designated as goals with members of the public, including: technology, public education, infrastructure, mental health, climate change and sea level rise, utilizing the Coast Guard station for various needs, and creating affordable housing, to name a few.

Willi acknowledged the council’s accomplishments from the past year, noting that the Community Anchor Institution broadband network is being built, the Block Island Power Company is going through the process of becoming a utility district, and that affordable housing is being addressed with the Thomas Property initiative.

Resident Socha Cohen asked the council if it needed to review the income of town employees “to see if the standard of living is reasonable.” That led to a brief discussion on the subject.

Molly O’Neill asked the council what an entry-level New Shoreham town employee earns in wages.

“It’s called a Grade C,” said Willi. “I think that it starts at $12.65” per hour. “We’ve had little to no adjustment in pay scales that were implemented about 18 or 20 years ago.” He added: “We’re in the midst of working with union representation, looking at the scales, and adjusting them. I think there should be change. So we’re working on it.”

Willi said he informed the town manager that some town employees “have second and third jobs.” With regard to the wage issue, Willi said, “There’s been no progress at that level for a number of years.”

Library Director Kristin Baumann said she had concerns about the wages of the town’s employees, as well as long-term planning, including the Thomas Property housing project, which she felt was moving forward too quickly. “Long-term planning is tricky; it’s difficult; it’s costly,” she said.

“I’ve been a town employee for 18 years, and I’ve been incurring debt that whole time, and it was very difficult for many years,” said Baumann. “I get that balance very personally. And I think we’re going to have to spend some big bucks to be sustainable. I think that’s where the vision should start, and then you make the goals and the priorities. So I would encourage the council and the public to meet to talk about a vision. What do we want to be? And what does that look like?”

The next Town Council meeting is Monday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m.