2013-12-27 / Front Page

Charter Review Proceeds

By Tom Shevlin

There’s already a lively conversation taking place in the upstairs library at the International Yacht Restoration School when Patrick Kelley, the former school committee chairman, walks in and sits at one end of a long wooden table.

Seated at the other end is Isabel Griffith, best known for her work as a past president of the Point Association and Alliance for a Livable Newport. On this night, she’s serving as the chairwoman of the city’s newly-constituted Charter Review Commission.

“Perfect timing,” Griffith says as Kelley takes his place among the rest of the nine-member commission.

Over the course of the next two hours, the group will comb deliberately through heavy white binders containing copies of the city’s municipal charter, Newport’s primary governing document.

Page by page, they read, discuss, and sometimes debate.

It’s a scene that only a policy wonk could love.

Formed by the City Council in November to review and recommend potential changes to the nearly 150-year-old compact, the commission is still only in the beginnings of what is anticipated to be an intensive months-long process. However, underlying their conversations so far has been a common theme: that while Newport has fared better than other communities around the state, there are still certain areas in its municipal life that simply aren’t functioning as they should.

In addition to Griffith and Kelley, members of the commission include Terry Nathan, president of IYRS; Sarah Atkins of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission; attorney David Martland; Lauren Carson from the Energy and Environment Commission; Rogers High School teacher Bill Kimes; former Hospitality Commission chair Mary Ann Marin; and former First Ward Councilor Charles Y. Duncan.

And if other commissions are confined to operate only under narrowly-defined parameters, the Charter Review Commission has no such problem.

With recent pronouncements from city officials over such topics as exploring the appointment of school committee members and the direct election of the mayor, it would appear that the commission has wide berth from which to operate.

Earlier this year, in announcing plans to create the commission, Newport Mayor Henry F. Winthrop hinted that the charter, which had been due for a normal review, might require a bit more attention than in the past.

“I think there are a number things that we should be looking at,” Winthrop said at the time, including whether to appoint, rather than elect, the seven-member school committee.

Spurred on by another frustrating budget process tinged with uncertainty that caused lingering questions related to school spending, councilors voted to form the review commission as part of their final budget vote this past June. Unsurprisingly, the school committee quickly became a focal point of that effort.

And while Charter Review Commission members did touch on the issue briefly on Wednesday, Dec. 18, it was hardly the only item of business that should interest local policy watchers.

During their opening meeting last month, Second Ward Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin, who was in attendance in the audience, floated the idea of doing away with council wards and allowing voters to cast ballots for seven candidates who would run at-large rather than the current split system, which provides for three geographicallydefined wards and four citywide council representatives.

Commission members picked up on his suggestion on Wednesday, with the idea providing the most robust debate of the evening.

Kelley, who ran at-large for his seat on the school committee, was first to express his desire to see a shift away from ward representation.

“I don’t see the need for wards,” he said, noting that an exclusively at-large system could attract more candidates into the field and provide “a deeper pool” of potential talent from which to choose.

His sentiments were backed up by several of his colleagues; however, at the same time, the group struggled with how to guard against disproportionate representation should voters decide to move away from the ward system.

Terry Nathan suggested that the answer may be as simple as just trusting the electorate. And Kelley pointed out that a model charter being used by the commission to guide their recommendations embraced at-large elections as a preferred mode of governance.

Still, questions loom.

Commission member Sarah Atkins said that she feared the city could risk alienating certain areas of town by moving to an at-large system and also suggested that wards allow for more organic candidate growth.

But as David Martland pointed out, ward races also tend to “set up antagonistic elections” as candidates vie for supremacy over each other, rather than running against a broader field.

Then there’s the question surrounding the selection of the mayor.

Currently, the city council alone has the responsibility for choosing a mayor, who serves first as the chair of the council. The title of mayor, under Newport’s city manager council form of government, is mostly ceremonial.

That, however, could change if the commission ultimately decides to recommend that the city adopt a process that would allow for the direct election of the mayor – something that the group seemed to at least be weighing seriously. And as Griffith noted, any such decision could have wide-ranging ramifications for the city and its politics.

Eventually it became clear that the commission would have to collect additional information before any decision could be reached regarding the matter.

However, members expressed more definitive opinions on the age-old term limit debate.

Hoping to encourage more people to run for office and to attract different perspectives to the council, the group achieved near unanimity in supporting the idea of limiting the number of consecutive years anyone is allowed to serve in elected office; however, members stopped short of endorsing a final recommendation.

Kelley, who is the only member of the commission to have held local elected office, quickly voiced his support for the concept. So did Nathan, who said term limits could encourage more people to run for office. Griffth also saw the merits in term-limited service.

Where slight differences arose was in the exact number of years that a candidate could expect to serve. Some thought that eight years was long enough. Others, like Kelley, favored 12 years as a benchmark. Martland, meanwhile, objected to the idea of term limits altogether, instead noting that frequent and active elections should serve as the ultimate form of term limits.

To that end, Martland also chafed at the idea of extending the length of terms from two years to four. While the majority of the commission felt that longer terms could provide for a more productive work environment on the council, Martland said that it’s important that the electorate be given the freedom to elect and reject candidates on a more frequent basis.

Other ideas related to council elections included whether to adopt staggered terms and wheter to push the city’s inauguration date up from Jan. 2 to the first week in December.

In the end, all agreed that the goal of any charter change should be to encourage more people to become active in municipal politics. Exactly how the commission will accomplish that will have to wait until their final recommendations are voted on later next year.

In deliberating their next steps, commissioners emphasized the importance of incorporating public input from outside of the group’s own views. In addition to encouraging more members of the public to participate in their meetings, which are slated to be held twice a month on Wednesdays through March, commissioners also noted that an email address set up through the city was now active at CharterReviewCommission@ CityofNewport.com.

A public forum is also being planned for March, just prior to the commission’s expected deadline to submit any recommended changes to the council for review. Those suggestions endorsed by the council would then likely be placed on the ballot in the form of referenda for voters to ultimately decide.

Return to top