2016-11-03 / Front Page

City Grant Process Under Scrutiny

By Barry Bridges

Newport Public Services Director William Riccio faced a barrage of questions on Wednesday, Oct. 26, when he presented City Councilors with a draft of a $750,000 grant application that if awarded to Newport would provide “technical assistance and information” to improve the city’s bicycling network and increase ridership.

Councilors spent about 35 minutes voicing their concerns over the substance of the proposed submission, as well as the city’s process in completing the application.

Third Ward Councilor Kathryn Leonard raised her eyebrows at some of the statements made in the application, including one to the effect that the city “will pilot two high capacity bike corrals to replace parking spaces in business areas as part of the Broadway Streetscape project.”

Leonard asked Riccio, “Were you aware of, or is it your goal, to build bike corrals and take away parking spaces?”

Riccio quickly conceded that the city “did not write 100 percent” of the responses in the application materials appearing on the meeting docket, but that he was in the process of making appropriate edits before the submission deadline at week’s end.

He agreed with Leonard’s concern that the city not hold out misleading information to the granting organization, People for Bikes. “I don’t want them to think one way and then get here and find something else,” Riccio said.

“Why don’t we have a draft of what Bill is doing?” asked Councilor Naomi Neville. “I don’t feel comfortable at all approving anything that we don’t have in front of us.”

“I totally agree,” said Leonard. “I don’t usually get abrupt, but I really feel that I have to here because I think the process has been really broken…. By approving this application, we are stating to the granting organization that Newport will work toward adding more bicycles and remove parking spaces on Broadway to add bike corrals…. The list of [similar statements] goes on and on in this document. All of this with no public workshop and no input from the people who live here, vote here, and work here.”

“This grant was not written by city staff, it was written by Bike Newport,” she deduced.

Councilor Justin McLaughlin defended such a practice. “We work with people, and this isn’t the first time we’ve worked with other agencies to prepare things…. What we’re hearing from [Riccio] is that he and members of his staff did in fact work with somebody who’s willing to do the legwork.”

And, in comments reminiscent of August’s dialogue on whether the city should pursue a grant to assist in the possible purchase of a fire and rescue boat, McLaughlin said, “[Submitting this application] doesn’t commit us to do a single thing. In reality, it doesn’t mean anything until we vote to accept the grant, if we should be given it. So we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here.”

“I can see both sides,” said Councilor Lynn Ceglie. “[Leonard] has some very valid concerns about the way that it was originally written, as it looked as though we were committing ourselves to infrastructure changes.”

But Ceglie was comfortable with Riccio’s explanation that the grant language would be “softened” as it was finalized. She did not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “For us to pass up $750,000 worth of technical assistance [to encourage biking] seems kind of ridiculous.”

City Manager Joseph Nicholson reminded councilors that the reason the grant was being discussed was because of their previous request for a status report, which happened to be scheduled near the submission deadline. Otherwise, it would have been sent along as a matter of course.

“We have 10 to 15 grant applications going on right now that probably some of you don’t know about – with water, sewer, transportation. The normal process is that we submit these things,” said Nicholson. “If you don’t like the material, and if we are lucky enough to get a grant, you can reject it. Or if you go through the material and you don’t like how it was presented, you can reject it.”

But the process may be changing. With another grant application causing confusion, Councilor John Florez commented, “Councilor Leonard and I will be proposing a resolution at our next meeting that would require public vetting of any grant in excess of $25,000. My problem with this particular situation is the fact that it was just kind of thrown at us. There weren’t any workshops…. I would like to have had a discussion.”

Prior to the 5-2 vote to submit the application once it was edited by Riccio, Leonard once again expressed her dissatisfaction. Joining with Florez in voting against pursuing the grant, she said, “I look at this as government by emergency…. There was no public process, no workshop, and we’re being asked to vote on something tonight that will be changed later."

In giving a nod to the application, First Ward Councilor Marco Camacho said, “I know that [Riccio] can clean this up, so I’m going to support it. But going forward, these things have to be tighter.”

Leonard later confirmed with Newport This Week that a "corrected" application was forwarded to councilors after the vote, adding that "the council meeting was an embarrassment where people did not even know what they were voting for."

People for Bikes indicates that finalist cities will be notified of their success in obtaining a grant by early January of next year.

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