2016-10-13 / Opinion

At-Large Candidates Deliberate the Issues

By Barry Bridges

The six contenders for the four at-large Newport City Council seats shared their views on several municipal issues during a candidate forum on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

In the second election season debate sponsored by the Alliance for a Livable Newport, incumbents John Florez, Justin McLaughlin, and Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, along with challengers Jamie Bova, Claude “Andy” Lavarre, and Henry “Harry” Winthrop, entertained questions posed by moderator Jill Kassis of the League of Women Voters.

An array of topics was covered, including the city’s strategic plan, parking, short-term rentals, the Naval Hospital property, how to bring in new businesses, and local funding for schools.

The candidates were in agreement with a recent resolution by the council supporting a public park on the waterfront land at the Naval Hospital if that property is eventually purchased by the city, and also commented on the possible disposition of the remainder of the parcel.

“We definitely need to acquire it, and do it soon. And I’m for a waterfront park,” said Winthrop, who served nine previous years as a councilor and throughout the evening referenced the North End as critical to Newport’s future. “But we should sell [the remainder] to a developer to do what we have approved as a council. The city should not be a landlord; we are in the business of providing services.”

Florez said, “I want the city to own that property. It will increase property values in the North End. And yes, we should have a park there.”

First-time office seeker Bova wants to see clearer municipal processes, pointing to a completed strategic plan as something that “would help us for the future and today.” Applying a similar analysis to bringing in new business, she added, “We need to make it easier for businesses to interact with the city. It’s bogged down in a lot of ways; we need to make it easier across the board.”

Bova also wants to do more to promote alternative means of transportation, making it easier to bike and walk in Newport.

When Kassis asked about the “over-studied and under-solved” problem of adequate parking, Lavarre and Winthrop were among those looking to the land that will be freed up with the Pell Bridge ramp realignments, as well as the potential availability of the Newport Grand tract. As to how to move visitors downtown after parking their cars in that area, Lavarre offered, “We can do a simple two-mile tunnel from the North End to the Gateway, with a train.”

“I know there’s a parking problem, but there are empty spaces at the Gateway Center and at IYRS,” said McLaughlin. “I think the most important thing we can do is to create a parking app to tell visitors where parking is available.”

Napolitano agreed that the North End could offer a future remedy, but cautioned against making the area a parking lot. “I like the idea of a parking app and working with private lots.”

As with his previous run for council in 2014, Lavarre is seeking an overhaul of business regulations. “The key is to reduce limitations, regulations, excessive rules, and taxes. If you reduce the burden on merchants, you’ll have more who will thrive under the invisible hand of capitalism.”

Offering his take on one way to support businesses, Florez revealed his intentions of introducing a panhandling ordinance that would prohibit the passing of money between cars and those on the street. He indicated the law’s language would be based on a model that noted Providence attorney John Tarantino has said would survive constitutional scrutiny.

But Napolitano objected to that suggestion. “I can’t let the panhandling comment go,” she said. “Providence was sued because they didn’t get [such an ordinance] right. I am not willing to put residents on the line for a lawsuit.”

Florez responded, “We never made it to the moon by being careful, and we never cured a disease by being cautious… We need people who are willing to disrupt the status quo.”

In asking for another term, Napolitano outlined what she sees as recent successes. “The council has accomplished a lot in the last two years. Millions have been spent on the revitalization of Broadway, with 70 percent funded by the state and federal governments, we have the sixth-lowest taxes of the 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island… and we have undertaken school, parks, sea wall, and water and sewer projects,” said the mayor.

Responding to a question about ever-increasing education costs, McLaughlin reiterated statements that he made during the spring’s budget process. “Nothing is more important than education… and it sends a message about the community’s values. No businesses will come here if the schools aren’t good.”

City voters will see a seventh name among the at-large council candidates when they make their choices on Nov. 8. Kimberly Shute met all of the filing requirements to be included on the ballot, but later decided to withdraw. She told Newport This Week that her decision to exit the race was beyond the deadline for having her name removed from the slate.

The final ALN forum will be at the Pell School on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 6 p.m. and will feature the 12 Newporters vying for the seven open positions on the School Committee.

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