Town Council examines proposed changes to Home Rule Charter

Thu, 12/31/2020 - 5:30pm
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The Town Council started a discussion on the Home Rule Charter’s proposed changes brought forth by the Charter Review Commission on Wednesday, Dec. 16, but had to continue the conversation to Monday, Dec. 21. The CRC has been reviewing the Home Rule Charter of New Shoreham (as adopted by the voters of New Shoreham on Nov. 2, 2010) since last September. The document is reviewed every 10 years, and revised as necessary.

In a Thursday, Oct. 15 article submitted by CRC member Keith Stover to The Block Island Times, Stover explained the significance of the Home Rule Charter:

“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.

“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 in October.”

First Warden André Boudreau opened up the dialogue at the Dec. 16 Town Council meeting to “get a consensus on which we want to put forward, which ones we don’t, and the ones we do put forward we will put to our Town Solicitor [Kathy Merolla] for legal review.” The council may choose to amend or discard the CRC’s suggested amendments. The proposals approved by the council will be forwarded to Merolla for legal review, and eventually voted on by the qualified electors of the Town of New Shoreham in March.

Town Council Terms resolution

Stover explained the proposed amendment for staggered terms on the Town Council. 

“This is something we have discussed for quite some time. This is basically a transition of four-year terms staggered, with Town Council elections every two years,” said Stover.

The proposed amendment under Section 401 of the Home Rule Charter reads:

“The Town Council shall consist of a First Warden, a Second Warden, and three Town Councilors, all to be elected at large from the Town, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of each even numbered year, each to serve for a four (4) year term or until his or her successor is elected and qualified, said terms to be so arranged that the First Warden, Second Warden and one (1) Council Member shall be elected in one general election and two (2) Council Members, shall be elected at the next general election.”

Some council members expressed concerns with the difficulty in attracting individuals to serve four years, explaining that they had previous difficulties in attracting interested candidates for just two-year terms.

“Four years is a huge commitment. I would believe it would make it harder to attract people to run,” said Boudreau.

The proposed change presented by the CRC was denied by the council.

Departments for Public Works, Community Development, and Administration and Human Services resolution

Stover discussed town government reorganization, through the implementation of a Department of Public Works (Section 801), Department of Community Development (Section 804), and Department of Administration and Human Services (Section 805).

“The Dept. of Public Works is about whether the Town Manager should continue to also serve as the Director of Public works… The strong issue here is that the Town Manager’s job is an all-consuming job. The Dept. of Public Works becomes complex and the Public Works projects become more complex – it is another skill set. We felt strongly that those needed to be two different jobs; and the Dept. of Administration and Human Services and Dept. of Community Development are about a bit more of a rational construct around the way town government is organized,” clarified Stover. He added the CRC was “not thinking about hiring new people for those [positions].”

“We have talented long-term employees in those areas and viewed this as an opportunity for them,” said Stover.

Councilor Martha Ball asked Town Manager Maryanne Crawford to provide a financial picture of the proposed positions. “Too many times, I have heard it’s not going to be an extra person. The answer is it is,” said Ball.

Crawford explained: “The way we financed this out, we did take all three of these [positions] and made an extra person - I read it as this person is above all these other folks. Regarding the Director of Public Works, this is total compensation of $93,000 to $146,000, I think closer to the $146,000 for this position. The Director of Community Development at $93,000 to $124,000, and Director of Administration and Human Services we think that is going to be in line with Director of Community Development at $93,000 to $124,000.”

CRC member Lisa Robb clarified that the CRC “wasn’t necessarily implying the hiring of four separate people. It’s really just hiring one additional person, relieving the Town Manager from some of those duties.”

Member Kim Gaffett added: “We were not talking about positions in terms of new employees, [we are] talking about a suite of responsibilities, tasks and duties, and breaking them out into a way that is understandable… this does not need to be positions, it needs to be looked at a systems point of view. It does not need to be new people.”

Second Warden Sven Risom and Ball agreed with the idea of having the Dept. of Public Works’ responsibilities be a separate entity from the Town Manager’s responsibilities.

“I’m more comfortable in having a Director of Public Works separate from the Town Manager,” said Risom.

The proposed amendment for the Dept. of Public Works was moved forward for legal review, with cleanup in the language advised. For the Dept. of Community Development and Dept. of Administration and Human Services, the council voted to not move forward on the proposed amendments.

Town Council Compensation resolution

Stover stated the proposed amendment for Town Council Compensation (Section 407) would be “a provision that would provide health insurance to members of the Town Council.” Stover explained that health insurance would also serve as an incentive to attract younger people to run for the council. 

Risom favored the amendment, feeling this strategy would be a useful tool in recruiting interested candidates to run on the council. “I am all in favor of getting more people to participate,” said Risom.

Ball brought up a concern with the implementation of the town’s insurance for council members, especially if one did not want to give up their own insurance for the town’s coverage.

“My concern – if someone has health insurance and they were going to go on the council, and they didn’t want to lose their original insurance – can you have the option to continue whatever insurance they have?” asked Ball.

“You don’t have to elect it,” said Stover, noting it was an option to choose.

“It’s an option and benefit, and that’s my choice,” added Risom.

“Getting health insurance can be a real incentive for an individual or family. We viewed it as a way to try to induce people to run,” said Stover.

Council members also discussed the idea of whether a stipend could be offered in lieu of the insurance coverage if an appointed council member did not want to participate in the town’s health insurance program.

Resident Doug Michel and Councilor Mark Emmanuelle also pointed out that in previous years, the implementation of the town’s health insurance for appointed council members became a “financial nightmare” for the Finance Department when a decision needed to be rendered by council members on whether to opt into the town’s health insurance.

“It’s a good incentive to get people to run for office,” said Boudreau in reply.

The proposed change was approved to move forward for legal review.

Police Advisory Commission resolution

Stover pointed out that in the current Town Charter, the creation of a Police Advisory Commission (Section 907) was labelled as a “may”. The new proposed language brought forth by the CRC reads “shall.” 

“We changed the ‘may’ to a ‘shall’. We viewed it as a communication tool between the Chief of Police and the community. The last sentence was taken out about taking complaints,” said Stover.

Stover added the Police Advisory Commission would be “a diverse group of people from the community that meet quarterly with the Chief of Police.”

“While working on this [Home Charter Rule], communication between the [New Shoreham Police] department and the community seemed to be breaking down a bit and we thought this was an appropriate answer to that,” said Stover.

Boudreau said he supported the creation of a Police Advisory Commission to be utilized for community outreach, but it should not “interfere with the Police Dept. or undermine the Town Manager.”

“I’ve been so passionate about this, to make sure that people have a voice, and that people can take that voice to a group. I also see this group in helping the Police Dept. I see only positive things about this,” added Emmanuelle.

The proposed language was passed by the council and will be forwarded for legal review.

Financial Town Meeting resolution

Stover pointed out two new changes under Section 301 and 302 for Financial Town Meetings: “it shall be considered the duty of each member of the community to attend the financial town meeting” and “in the event of a vacancy or absence of both the Town Moderator and the Assistant Town Moderator, the Town Council shall appoint a Temporary Moderator to fulfill the duties of the Town Moderator.”

Ball agreed with the notion that “everyone should go to FTM,” but questioned if the wording was appropriate.

“I don’t like the wording,” agreed Boudreau. While Ball and Boudreau disagreed with the new changes on the wording for attending the FTM, the majority agreed to move forward. The changes for sections 301 and 302 were approved for legal review.

Initiative and Referendum resolution

“The Initiative and Referendum section enables citizens to petition the Town Council for an ordinance change. If the ordinance change doesn’t occur, [there is] a process of gathering signatures on the ordinance [with a set bar to meet]. If the bar is met, it can get to a referendum on a particular issue. Again, I happen to like this, the bar is high, and it’s not going to be easy to get to the referendum… A lot of states and towns have this,” clarified Stover on Section 203 of Initiative and Referendum.

Risom felt that the council already had the power and responsibility to make change and hold discussions at Town Council meetings.

“I agree with Sven. This has the potential of a screaming nightmare in the Clerk’s Office,” said Ball.

“I think it would undermine us… I think we were elected to make these changes,” said Boudreau.

“Anyone that wants to make a change, has to come to the council. We still have a small enough community,” added Ball.

The proposed resolution did not move forward.

Town Manager resolution resolution

The new proposed amendment on the Section 502 Town Manager employment and residency reads: “At the time of his or her employment, the Town Manager need not be a resident of the Town or State, but his or her employment contract shall require that she or he must become a qualified elector and resident of the Town within 180 days after employment.”

“You can’t make a residency a requirement. I have a concern that this mandate as it’s expressed in the proposed amendment would not be legal,” said Merolla.

Merolla advised that the new amendment be restructured to eliminate the residency requirement, and to “mirror the image of the state’s statute with respect to the contract.”

“By saying it must be in the contract, it is a violation of the current statute which says you can’t mandate that as a requirement,” explained Merolla.

Sections 502 and 507 were approved to move forward for legal review, with language revisions to be included on both sections.

Transparency and Open Government resolution

“This was very much a central focus, a primary focus of the commission to try to put the best possible and most timely information in the hands of citizens about government and the decisions we are making. We will be using as many of the electronic platforms as we possibly can to let people know what is going on in town, [through the] broadcast and recording of meetings, and boards and commissions. A lot of this is about public access to documents,” said Stover. 

The CRC recommended new language for eight sections of the charter, dealing with transparency in town government. The following motions for each section read as: Section 104 Conduct of Town Business with suggestions from Ball approved to move forward for legal review; Section 304 on Publication of Financial Town Meeting Warrants approved to move forward; Section 402 on Qualifications and Eligibility approved to move forward; Section 405 on Rules of Procedure approved to move forward; Section 408 on Powers and Duties approved to move forward; Section 409 on Ordinances approved to move forward with new language revisions; Section 506 on Powers and Duties approved to move forward with revisions; and Section 605 on Budget Procedures approved to move forward.