2014-06-05 / Around Town

Council Attends to Array of Issues

By Barry Bridges

In addition to the headline-grabbing casino and Preservation Society victualing license debates, the Newport City Council dispensed with several other matters during its lengthy regular meeting on Wednesday, May 28.

Following a decision by Middletown to gauge voter sentiment, councilors unanimously supported the placement of a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot concerning school unification. The measure will simply read, “Should Newport and Middletown join together to form a unified high school?”

In describing his support for the idea, Second Ward Councilor Justin McLaughlin gave a brief review of the work of the Unified High School Exploratory Committee, which is composed of Newport and Middletown officials. He recognized Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano for her efforts in starting the dialogue years ago.

“We’re trying to find out what would be good for the community, but one of the things we really don’t know is how the community feels about this,” McLaughlin said. “This is a difficult question. Middletown Council adopted a resolution to put a nonbinding question on the ballot in the fall, and that’s what we’re going to do here.”

The referendum will come at a time of continuing school budget challenges, as well as declining enrollment at Rogers and Middletown high schools. The districts are already experimenting with sharing facilities services, which is expected to produce up to $60,000 in savings in Newport.

The Unified Committee and the City Council will finalize the details of the plan for submission to the Secretary of State’s office by early August.

Accompanying the casino and school questions on the November ballot will be a bond referendum where voters will be asked to decide whether to fund needed improvements to city facilities. This effort was spearheaded by Napolitano, who had directed the administration to develop a comprehensive, multi-year facilities rehabilitation plan, complete with costs and a timeline.

City Manager Jane Howington presented the staff’s $6 millionplus plan on May 28, which outlined needed upgrades to parking lots, parks, and playgrounds; library renovations; accessibility improvements, such as the installation of an elevator in City Hall; and monies for school buildings, with a roof at Rogers High School among the list of potential projects.

To move the matter to the ballot this year, a quick turnaround at the local level was necessary to give adequate time to state election officials. McLaughlin and Council Vice Chair Naomi Neville expressed concerns that an insufficient window was left for the council’s discussion on such significant expenditures.

McLaughlin nevertheless lent his backing, saying that “I will support this because it will go to the voters, and if we make a good case for it we can get a lot of these things done. I just don’t want to have arguments over the next four weeks over things in the budget, as if they cost money, while these things are free.”

“When you have kids and teachers and others in a facility where there’s a roof failure, you need to address it immediately,” Napolitano told Newport This Week.

The councilors decided to keep the initiative alive on a vote of six to one, with Neville against. Bond counsel will now draft the appropriate documentation while debate continues on exactly how the monies, if approved, would be best spent.

In other business, the council agreed to an 11-month extension of the employment contract of Howington, carrying the end date to December 31, 2015. Hired over two years ago to take over for the retiring Edward F. Lavallee, Howington has made a number of changes to the city’s operations, seeking to revamp City Hall into a more customer-oriented environment and improve communications. She has publicly butted heads with Councilor Michael Farley at times, but the vote illustrated that she enjoys a general level of confidence among the council.

Speaking in favor of the extension, McLaughlin pointed to a memo where Howington had outlined potential budget reductions that had prompted questions from some council members. “It may look like the city manager did something that some of us may not be happy with, but her job is not to make us happy. Her job is to act as responsibly as possible as a city manager, and I think she’s done an outstanding job doing that since she came here. I am pleased to be one of the persons who advocated for hiring her and I am happy to see that she’ll stay with us and stop running around doing interviews.”

McLaughlin was referring to jobs in Ohio for which Howington has reportedly expressed an interest.

On this front, Farley commented, “I’m probably the only one who is opposed to the 11-month extension. As everyone knows, the city manager has been on two job interviews in Ohio and it seems pretty clear to me that we are her third choice. I’m also not pleased with the effort that was put into keeping taxes low [during the current budgeting process].”

The terms of Howington’s contract were extended six to one, with Farley casting the opposing vote.

With little discussion, the panel also adopted its City Council Standards for Professional Conduct. They are modeled after similar guidelines used by other local governments.

The resolution states that “All members are expected to conduct themselves according to the highest standards of courtesy and professionalism and owe each other, and anyone appearing before them, respect, diligence and protection against unjust and improper criticism or attacks.” The provisions also specify that “Civility and professionalism are hallmarks of a member’s dedication to public service. Voluntary adherence is expected as part of this commitment by all members.”

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