2015-02-26 / Opinion

Partisan Elections Could Help City Manager

Most people around here, I believe, would agree that the Blizzard of ’78 was epic in terms of the amount of snow and the duration of disruption that we experienced. But, the winter of 2015 has certainly given us something to talk (or grouse) about, unless you’re from Buffalo.

Snowstorms, and other weather events, can bring out the best and worst in people. We see people helping their friends and neighbors by shoveling their sidewalks and driveways and by going to stores for food and prescriptions. Then there are those lunkheads who shovel snow into the street and refuse to clear snow from their vehicles. Don’t you just love the lout who just clears a peephole on his windshield so that he can only see 10 feet in front of him? Methinks that says a lot about his perspective on life.

Well, snowstorms can also generate opportunities to get some things done. For me, in the last week, I have been able to read about half of Phil West’s voluminous book, "Secrets and Scandals." West was the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island and he reflects on 20 years of his experience at the Statehouse and other venues of state government. It is especially interesting if you know the players in this revealing and dramatic account of government, politics, and a hefty dose of shenanigans.

To some, politics is simply a cynical display of power, a blatant abuse of authority, a fertile field for insider deals, and a golden opportunity for corruption. For sure, we have seen a number of elected officials betray the public trust and disgrace themselves as well as their families by using their positions to personal advantage.

But, to others, like me, politics can be and does present the opportunity to achieve lofty goals that serve the public good. Programs such as Social Security, the GI Bill, Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Peace Corps, and the Americans With Disabilities Act are examples of how government, through the process of politics, has enhanced the quality of life for all of us. I make the observation that these were initiatives that were advanced by the Democratic Party but have had widespread, bipartisan support.

Yet, I am still a little puzzled about what transpired in Middletown during the last election and how the City of Newport will fare in filling the position of City Manager. What's the connection, you ask? Well, the Town of Middletown decided to go to nonpartisan elections in the future, assumingly because partisan politics was adversely affecting town government. I am not sure how exactly that was demonstrated, but the voters supported the change.

Meanwhile, in Newport, which has been nonpartisan for over 60 years, we are seeing a significant turnover in city managers. I think that having had four city managers in the last 13 years is indicative of something essentially and systemically wrong with how the system is currently operating. As these municipal professionals exited their stages, they opined that getting along with the council or getting the council to come to consensus was a significant challenge.

In contrast, Middletown has had considerably more stability with its town administrators, having half as many in a like number of years. And it was done successfully with both Democrats and Republicans in control. The question might be: Shouldn’t Newport consider a return to partisan elections?

With enough controls in place to prevent undue influence and micromanaging of city government by the members of the City Council, it is likely that there would be more stabilization in the executive leadership in city government. It seems that what is needed is more structural synergy between the elected members of the council and the city manager so that it won’t seem to the city manager that the city is potentially going in seven different directions at any one time.

I realize that some people will point to Washington as an example where partisan politics has devolved into name-calling and government gridlock. Still, there are innumerable examples right here in Rhode Island where partisan elections and partisan control of city and town councils have worked very effectively. In fact, it is how most municipalities operate in Rhode Island.

So, let’s ask the City of Newport to put this issue out for a serious study.

J. Clement Cicilline
Newport Democratic Committee

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