2016-03-03 / Front Page

Councilor Withdraws Resignation

By Olga Enger

In an odd sequence of events coming on the heels of the long-anticipated selection of Newport’s city manager, City Councilor Justin McLaughlin said he was stepping down from the council, only to rescind his resignation a few days later.

On Wednesday, Feb. 24, McLaughlin was the single opposing vote in the councilors’ decision to offer longtime city solicitor and interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson the full-time role. The following day, McLaughlin submitted a two-sentence letter of resignation to the city clerk’s office and provided each councilor with a copy. In the letter, he specified his resignation was effective at the close of business on Monday, Feb. 29.

“It has been a great honor and privilege to serve as a member of the Newport City Council,” McLaughlin wrote.

In a sit-down interview with Newport This Week, McLaughlin said that his growing frustrations with council process, which were exacerbated by the process in hiring a city manager, contributed to his decision to resign.

“You can call it immaturity, but I just felt like we hadn’t done our job and I was disappointed,” McLaughlin said. “I didn’t think we had faithfully executed our responsibility to the community or the trust of the screening committee. We should have taken the time to look at the candidates.”

After the council voted to hire Nicholson, McLaughlin spoke with the new city manager.

“I said, ‘This isn’t about you.’ I have complete confidence Joe can do a good job,” McLaughlin said.

The councilor reported he had a change of heart upon receiving calls and emails and being approached on the street by residents who urged him to reconsider.

“It’s a big person who admits, well, maybe I made a mistake. In the moment, you can go back and reflect – maybe that wasn’t the best thing to do,” said McLaughlin.

On Monday, he filed a second letter with the city clerk, rescinding his resignation.

He wrote, “I look forward to fulfilling my responsibility to the residents of Newport by serving the two-year term to which I was elected in 2014. It is a duty that I regret I briefly failed to fully consider. I apologize to all the members of the council for the confusion that my actions may have caused.”

“That’s the issue with Justin all the time. When things don’t come out the way he thinks they should come out, he always blames the process,” said Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano.

McLaughlin said the council is disorganized in their communication, which contributes to his frustrations.

“When a council engages in public discussion and decision-making, it may cause more controversy, but that is a necessary element of local government,” McLaughlin said. He added the recently-released smartphone app, “Report It,” which allows residents to notify the city of non-emergency matters such as potholes, should help streamline communications. It may be “distracting” to the city administration when each councilor reaches out directly with concerns, questions and requests, he said.

“I would prefer that we make decisions as a council and accept the fact this may be a little messy, but this is what democracy is all about,” said McLaughlin. “The roles that citizens and the press play in government – those are important roles.”

When Napolitano first served as mayor in 2009, McLaughlin resigned as vice chair after a disagreement. Napolitano added the councilor has also walked out of several meetings, citing frustrations with process.

“He walked out of a meeting in October 2015, when we didn’t agree with him on a parking issue,” said the mayor. “In front of everyone.”

Looking forward, McLaughlin hopes Nicholson is able to give some guidance around council roles and responsibilities.

“A manager has to say no. A manager who always tries to say yes is not building a strong environment. In order to effectively work with council, the manager has to set some new rules,” McLaughlin said.

Napolitano said any councilor may propose new rules or procedural changes at any time.

“We can’t let something like this be a distraction. Justin was voted onto the council. We recognize he will have some opinions about things, but I don’t expect him to walk out when things don’t go his way,” Napolitano added.

The incident has not influenced McLaughlin’s resolve to run for reelection in November.

“A phoenix rises out of his ashes every day,” McLaughlin responded when asked about the next election. “It’s about things that have to be done. I think Newport is a great place to live; it has marvelous qualities. It has challenges; it always has challenges."

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