Suggested changes made to Town Charter explained

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 7:45pm
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Towns in Rhode Island, and many towns throughout New England, are guided in their structure and governance by a Home Rule Charter. The town charter is the foundation of local government, covering everything from the length of terms of local elected officials to the essential duties of the Town Manager and Town Council, from how our town’s meetings are conducted to the structure and makeup of nearly all of the town’s boards and committees. The charter is the stable reference point for nearly all aspects of how our local government operates, and is a comprehensive document consulted regularly in the town’s decision-making process. The title “Home Rule Charter” describes the document’s essence: it embodies our town’s right to self-determination.

Why does our Financial Town Meeting run the way it does? It’s in the charter. Why are there five Council members? It’s in the charter. How long are Council terms? In the charter. You get the idea – if you have a question about nearly any aspect of town governance and structure, chances are the answer is in our charter. However - as important as knowing what the charter is, it’s also critical to know what it isn’t. The charter is not a set of ordinances, though it does establish how ordinances are adopted. The charter does not, and cannot, color outside the lines of the state statutes – it cannot, say, create a Zoning Board or a School Committee with rules or policies that contradict state law. But it is the bedrock document that reflects the town’s fundamental philosophy of governance.

One of the most interesting things about charters is that they are intended to be living documents, relevant to the current realities and circumstances in a town, and are therefore required to be reviewed and updated every ten years by an appointed committee. Any changes are considered by the Town Council and, at the Council’s discretion, placed before the voters in a referendum.

Last September, the members of New Shoreham’s Charter Review Commission, Rob Closter, Kim Gaffett, Molly O’Neill, Chelsea Redd, Lisa Robb and Keith Stover, began their work, considering every aspect of the charter. The group met with a very broad range of town officials, town employees, community leaders and pretty much anyone else with thoughts or concerns about priorities, the things that work, and the things that might need change. The shutdown this spring stopped the work for a few months, but the document is largely complete, and a draft revised charter was presented to the Town Council last week.

The charter group has proposed a number of changes reflecting what we heard from the community, research into the charters of communities similar to ours, and our own thoughts about how to create the best-functioning town government possible.

The Charter Commission’s recommended changes can be roughly broken down into two broad categories – Accessibility of Town Government and Government Organization - and range from some relatively simple modifications to the Financial Town Meeting Warrant announcement to fundamental changes in Town Council terms and a new provision empowering residents to utilize initiative and referendum to advance and pass ordinances. The list of changes below is not comprehensive but reflects the high points and the philosophical direction.

Accessibility of Town Government

Our demand for access to information increases constantly, and we’ve seen that even more clearly in this era of pandemic-driven Zoom meetings. The Review Commission felt strongly that the town’s policies and infrastructure must keep up, and includes throughout the proposed charter requirements for:

Broadcast and recording of Council and Board meetings;

Broad electronic distribution of meeting announcements and materials;

Greater use of reasonably available social media by town government;

A user-friendly and more functional town website that enables the conduct of residents’ business electronically.

Government Organization

The Commission’s draft as presented to the Council contains a large number of changes designed to enhance the effectiveness, responsiveness and continuity of town government, focused generally on the way we elect our Town Council, the duties of the Town Manager and town departments, and the introduction of a limited form of initiative and referendum:

Staggered and lengthened terms for Town Council – members would serve 4 year terms, and terms would be staggered with elections every two years;

The Town Manager would be explicitly charged with responsibility for active enhancement of the town’s infrastructure for electronic access to town business, broadcast and recording of council and board meetings, and enhanced use of social media for the dissemination of information about the town’s business;

Instituting initiative and referendum to enable residents to directly petition the town for ordinance changes. The version proposed by the commission creates a high bar for access to this tool to ensure that it can only be used with broad community support;

Prohibiting the Town Manager from also serving as the Director of the Department of Public Works. With the constantly growing complexity and responsibilities of the Town Manager, and the increased number and complexity of town construction and maintenance projects, the commission felt strongly that the town’s interests are not served by having one person hold both jobs;

Under the previous charter, language enabled the creation of a Police Advisory Commission, and the committee felt that making the group permanent, with regular meetings between the commission members and the Police Department would be a useful and worthwhile tool for enhancing communication between the department and the community.

Please take the time to read through the charter changes that have been proposed – they represent months of thoughtful reflection, meetings, discussion and compromise. The full document can be viewed at https://clerkshq.com/ newshoreham-ri by clicking on “Town Council,” clicking on “Agendas,” finding the Oct. 5 Town Council agenda, and after opening that, clicking on the highlighted “proposed” changes. See what we’re talking about regarding better access to our town government? You can also get a copy by contacting the Town Clerk’s office.