2014-03-21 / Front Page

Panel Mulls Power of Words

By Tom Walsh

Never underestimate the power of words–especially when it comes to revising Newport’s city charter.

Little noticed so far among higher profile city and school committee matters before the Charter Review Commission is the question of what to formally call the person who holds the dual position of “mayor” and City Council “chair.”

“The way it is in the charter now, sometimes that person is referred to as the ‘mayor,’ other times as the ‘chair,’” said Isabel Griffith, commission “chair.” At some point between now and the May 1 deadline for recommendations, the review panel will likely vote on whether to recommend to the City Council that the charter document refer to the position as either “mayor” or “chair.” The council must approve proposed charter revisions before city voters decide the issues once and for all.

Griffith said she prefers “chair” to “mayor.” “But I’m just one of the members,” she said. “And right now this group can be hard to predict.”

The issue has only surfaced recently in the charter panel’s deliberations. “It’s interesting, really,” she said. “The issue of whether to call that person the 'chair' or the 'mayor' is much more important than you might think. The word ‘chair’ does not note as much power as the word ‘mayor.’”

“‘Mayor’ has implications of authority that are all tied up in that word,” Griffith said. “I think ‘mayor’ is a loaded word. It implies authority that isn’t there. It encourages people to assume things that should not be assumed.”

Griffith was asked whether it is valid to compare the mayor of Newport to the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. The latter is considered to be one of the most powerful political offices in Rhode Island.

“Not really,” she said. “In Newport, that person runs the City Council meetings. That’s what the chair does.” She said the Newport City Council has rules that are specifically intended to temper the power of the chair. And, she said, current “Mayor” Henry F. Winthrop does a good job presiding over council meetings.

“He runs a very fair meeting,” Griffith said. “You see him confer with others about the rules all the time. He does it because he’s a good chair. Generally, he knows how the rules apply. And when he’s not sure, he asks.”

Meanwhile, the charter panel still faces votes on numerous other issues. They include questions on: n Appointing, rather than electing, school committee members. Griffith said this issue now appears to be off the table, adding that, “We got a lot of comments from the public about this and I can’t remember anyone speaking in favor” of appointments. n Increasing school committee terms from two to four years. n Staggering school committee elections – possibly four members being elected and then three elected two years later. n Implementing term limits for elected officials. “That could be two four-year terms or three four-year terms,” Griffith said, adding that she understands arguments in favor of limits and against them. “There are pros and cons on both sides,” she said. n Electing City Council members by wards rather than at-large. Griffith said public input on this issue has changed the minds of some commission members. n Adopting a strong mayoral system of municipal government. Some members of the commission have changed their minds on this issue as well, she said. The chairwoman has not. As she said earlier, “I like being governed by a committee. I’m uncomfortable with one person being the decider. I’m not in favor of the typical strong mayor.”

Griffith would not predict how the commission will vote on any of these matters. However, she identified one idea that she believes the panel will embrace: a proposal to revise the charter to make it gender neutral. For example, she said, the current document sometimes refers to the city manager as “he” when, in fact, the current manager is Jane Howington.

“I think they will probably go ahead and do that,” she said.

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