2013-11-14 / Around Town

Charter Review Gets Underway

By Tom Shevlin

Hold nothing back.

That’s the message Newport Mayor Henry F. Winthrop left with members of the city’s new Charter Review Commission last week.

Meeting for the first time on Wednesday, Nov. 6, the group was challenged to not shy away from potentially controversial issues and throw out all of their “preconceived ideas” about how the city government should work.

For example, Winthrop, who floated the idea of replacing the current school committee model with an appointed body last June, once again suggested that the commission examine how the school committee and council are elected.

Isabelle Griffith, former president of both the Point Association and Alliance for a Livable Newport, was tapped to lead the group as chair.

Setting the tone for an open discussion, Griffith reiterated the challenge before the group and the potential impact it could have when its charge is complete.

All seemed to agree that the nine-member group should take the time to develop a broader view of how the city functions and what changes should be made to the Charter.

John Shehan, who was on hand for the meeting, serves as chair of the city’s Historic District Commission. He suggested that in addition to looking at issues like whether to appoint or elect school committee members, the commission should also consider the idea of a direct election for mayor.

Currently, the city’s mayoral post is considered mostly ceremonial – the title coming along with that of council chair, who is elected not by the public, but rather from among the ranks of the council.

Other ideas expected to be investigated over the coming months include implementing staggered terms for council elections and whether or not to eliminate or reconfigure the city’s last three remaining ward districts.

Newporters last weighed in on a Charter review in 2007, when nearly two dozen changes were recommended to the public for adoption. All of them – which were mostly minor – were approved during a November 2008 ballot referendum.

This month's meeting, which was held in the downstairs meeting room at the Newport Public Library, was the first of what is expected to be a months-long process that will culminate in April when the group presents its findings to the council for adoption.

The items that the council approves will then move to the voters, who will once again be asked to weigh in with their opinions in a ballot referendum.

The next meeting of the Charter Review Commission is Wednesday, Nov. 20. Meetings are scheduled to be held on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 5:30 p.m. at the library, and all interested members of the public are encouraged to attend.

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