2014-01-03 / Front Page

Farley Requests Raise Ire

By Tom Shevlin

A slew of freedom of information requests, and the resulting bill issued to one member of the City Council, sparked a flurry of questions through e-mail and social media last week.

When Councilor Michael T. Farley placed a request from the city administration for information that he said was proving to be elusive, he was pleasantly surprised by the quick response. But when he received a bill for the labor involved in collecting that information, he took to the Internet.

“Today I received a bill from Newport City Manager Jane Howington for $1,018.65,” Farley wrote in a blog post dated Dec. 23.

Accompanied by a photo of him holding a bill, Farley went on to rehash the details of an ongoing personal feud with Howington, which over the last three months has played out both behind the scenes and in full view of the public during several tense council meetings.

The latest chapter centered on much of the same plot line.

“As a lawyer, some of the city's decisions have seemed quite peculiar, and the city manager did not possess the background to understand or explain them,” Farley wrote. “And so I asked (politely) for primary documents, like old con- tracts, and accounting entries.”

He continued, “Initially, the city manager simply would not produce them. I waited for weeks and months, and got no response. I don't know why she chose to ignore or obstruct my very simple requests - perhaps it was at the direction of council leadership, or perhaps it was just passive resistance to change. Either way, it was not acceptable.”

Since being sworn into office last January, Farley has repeatedly pressed for information aimed at seeking out savings through various avenues, from questioning city contracts to scrutinizing property values and pushing for a homestead exemption that could benefit year-round property owners.

And though his ideas have found support among his fellow councilors, his efforts have not been without controversy.

During the most recent City Council meeting last month, Farley and Howington engaged in an awkward exchange over the administration’s recommendation to allow a loan tied to the Clarke School apartment complex to go into default.

In a recommendation that would eventually be approved on a unanimous vote, Howington asked the council for permission to pursue legal action against the building’s owners as a means to recover a roughly $1.8 million loan repayment that had originally been set to expire last year.

Farley had initially raised concerns over the outstanding debt earlier in the fall, and pressed the city to take a harder line with the owners, Clarke School Partners, LLC. However, with the council poised to approve just that, he recoiled and set his sights on what he said was Howington’s own ineffectiveness.

After an uncomfortable exchange, Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano sought to interject a degree of civility into the conversation.

“With all due respect, this is insulting,” she said, “not only to the manager, but to the rest of the council, and to the public.” She continued, “To treat people the way you treat them, to talk to them the way you talk to them, I don’t see how we can get beyond this.”

To be sure, Napolitano agreed, something needs to be done about the outstanding debt. “But,” she said, “haranguing people and insulting people in the public is not the way to do business.”

In his online posting, Farley contended that he was simply asking questions that would benefit taxpayers.

And while he acknowledged that it was “certainly an unusual way for a city councilor to request information,” he added that filing a series of requests for public documents as allowed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was “the only way this city manager ever responded to me."

Calling the bill “remarkably petty” and suggesting that he was being bullied, Farley went on to say that his actions were born out of frustration.

“The fact is that Jane should have given me the data the moment I asked. When she refused, I felt that my only choice was to request it in a manner which may not be ignored, through FOIA,” he said.

However, Newport Mayor Henry F. Winthrop took issue with the idea that Farley was being singled out or penalized, and noted that all FOIA requests may become the subject of fees.

As stipulated in the city’s procedures for obtaining public records, which is found on the home page of its website, FOIA requests may indeed be subject to “15 cents per page for copies and/or $15 per hour, after the first hour, for search and/or retrieval of documents.”

In the last six months, Farley has filed no less than four FOIA requests, including one that asked for all e-mail correspondence from both Howington and the rest of the council regarding the city’s longterm lease with the Newport Yacht Club. Other requests included data from the Newport Police Department on the city’s violent crime rate, and another for information concerning Newport’s Sister City program, which he likened to a “slush fund” to pay for “the foreign travel expenses of certain council members.”

Winthrop took issue with the categorization that the Sister City program operated through a “slush fund.” Rather, he said, the $30,000 in funds dedicated for the goodwill exchange flows through a restricted account – one of roughly 150 that the city currently operates – and is set up to ensure a certain degree of fiscal responsibility, not largesse.

“We all want the same thing for the city,” Winthrop said of Farley’s recent requests. “It’s just a matter of how we get there.”

By Farley’s count, asking about the Sister City program and the Newport Yacht Club cost about $650, while inquiring about the violent crime rate cost roughly $350.

When reached earlier this week, Farley said that he has no plans to pay the bill, and added that he hopes to be able to avoid such inquiries in the future by working more closely with his fellow councilors and city staff.

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