2014-07-17 / Front Page

Charter Proposals Scrutinized

By Barry Bridges

In their first expansive public discussion on the report of Newport’s Charter Review Commission (CRC), city councilors balked at including some major elements of the 21 proposed charter amendments on the November ballot.

While all votes on the separate charter recommendations are due to be reconsidered at the council’s next regular meeting on Wednesday, July 23, comments from councilors hint at strongly-held opinions toward some of the more contentious CRC ideas.

The council declined to endorse what is arguably one of the CRC’s signature suggestions: increasing the number of city wards from three to four for City Council and School Committee representation.

Councilor Justin McLaughlin kicked off the remarks on this initiative. “I don’t support this. As I’ve reviewed model charters, I think the push should be toward more ‘global’ representation, not segmentation,” he said.

On the other hand, Councilor Kathryn Leonard argued, “I totally disagree. Yes, we all represent people throughout the city, but when it comes to quality of life issues, most constituents call the ward person and expect a response. I feel confident in saying that people like responses. I would like to see it on the ballot.”

Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, who has served on the council in both ward and at-large capacities, swung in the opposite direction. “I don’t feel confident making four wards again. I really feel that this is something the community voted on six years ago and I don’t see a reason to change it.”

First Ward Councilor Marco Camacho, who is wrapping up his first term this fall, said, “I have a fundamental problem with the ward system. I’m not held to the same standard [as an at-large representative], yet I have the same voting power. We should be operating more as a ‘board of directors,’ if you will. Thinking about ‘my little corner of the city’ is too great a temptation.” His subsequent motion to put an exclusively at-large system on the ballot as an alternative failed five to two, with Mayor Henry Winthrop siding with Camacho in the minority.

Councilor Michael Farley drew a parallel to comments made by some councilors in May on the value of voter input in the casino debate. “This is an issue that’s too important for seven to decide. I’m going to support [the CRC’s] efforts; they presented the fruits of their labor.”

A motion to exclude the fourward question from the ballot passed five to two, with Farley and Leonard in the minority in wanting to give voters a say.

Some of the recommendations did receive preliminary approval to move to the ballot, such as starting council terms in December; changing the way vacancies are filled; giving the council the power to merge departments; and requiring more comprehensive strategic plans.

Other ideas viewed unfavorably by the council were provisions requiring a review of city commissions and regular school budget updates.

McLaughlin introduced two additional measures of his own for deliberation. His proposal to require council approval of city manager appointments for certain high-level city positions did not receive the blessing of his colleagues, while his idea to require council involvement in collective bargaining agreements was continued for further discussion on July 23.

Looking ahead to next week’s meeting when the package will be discussed for a second time, CRC Chair Isabel Griffith told Newport This Week, “It’s hard to know what will happen.” She noted that the CRC had no quarrel where their recommendations were considered legally redundant or where the subject could be better addressed through ordinance changes. And she was fine with councilors making arguments in support of their respective positions.

However, like Farley, she questioned why citizens would not be allowed to vote on the conclusions reached by the CRC after months of study.

“These ideas have an effect on people who live here. It would seem that the people could decide, as they will be allowed to do on the casino. Why not just vote on it?”

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