2017-11-30 / Front Page

Former Councilors Eye Vacancy

By Olga Enger

It is not an election year for local offices, but an unexpected vacancy on the Newport City Council has at least two former councilors vying for the open seat.

Councilor John Florez, who has served on the council for the past three years, announced his resignation in a Nov. 22 email addressed to the council and City Manager Joseph Nicholson. His resignation, which will be effective Jan. 9, is expected to appear on the Dec. 13 council docket for a formal acceptance by the council, according to city officials.

Florez said he is stepping down to open an office for his company, Drupal Connect, in Austin, Texas, and to focus on his local commitments to the human services organization Boys Town, as well as an after-school technology project at Rogers High School.

“It doesn’t leave a lot of time to dedicate to my constituents,” Florez told Newport This Week. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to stay on.”

Florez lost his bid for the Rhode Island Senate in the Aug. 22 special election, after the resignation of then-Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.

“I really thought I was going to win, but it wasn’t even close,” Florez said.

Looking ahead, the outgoing councilor says he doesn’t envision a future in politics.

“What I’ve learned over the last few months is that I’m getting self-fulfillment doing projects on my own, that don’t need a consensus from other people,” Florez said. “I don’t need four votes to set up an after-school technology project at the high school. I just need cash to do it.”

To fill the seat, the council must collect applications from the public and appoint a candidate through a majority vote. The council must fill the seat within 30 days after the council learns of the vacancy, according to the city charter. Adhering to that process, the mayor’s office issued a statement on Nov. 27, instructing interested residents to submit application information to the mayor’s office on or before Dec. 15.

Two former councilors, Marco Camacho and Justin McLaughlin, told Newport This Week they intend to throw their hats into the ring.

“It would be an honor to serve again. I have the experience, the skill and the willingness,” Mc- Laughlin said. “The press release said to send in a letter with your resume,” he added, laughing. “I have a little bit of a resume as a city councilor.”

McLaughlin was first elected to represent the Second Ward in the 2006 election. He was then reelected to the ward seat in 2008, 2010 and 2012. In 2014, he ran and was reelected as an at-large councilor, but then, in the 2016 election, Mc- Laughlin lost by a narrow margin of 154 votes to Councilor Florez, who placed fourth in the at-large race.

If this vacancy occurred a few years ago, McLaughlin would have been automatically appointed to the role. From 2008 until 2014, the charter stated that a council vacancy was to be filled by the candidate with the next highest number of votes. However, in 2014 voters approved an amendment to the charter, which removed that language and left the decision to the council instead of the electorate. Before 2008, vacancies were filled by council appointment, the same method used today.

“In 1995, I was that guy who took the seat,” said Mayor Harry Winthrop, who was first elected to the council in 1990. He decided not to run in 1994 but was reappointed to the council when Kathleen Fisher stepped down from the post in April 1995.

In 2012, then-Mayor Stephen Waluk left a vacancy in the council when he accepted a position with the Rhode Island District Court. Stephen Coyne, who was the next highest vote-getter, was sworn into office to replace Waluk on the council.

Unlike Coyne’s appointment, McLaughlin will have to compete for the role due to the 2014 charter amendment.

Former Councilor Marco Camacho has also expressed interest in the seat. Camacho lost his bid for reelection in the 2016 First Ward race against Councilor Susan Taylor. Camacho won his first election in 2012 against incumbent Charles Duncan and ran unopposed in 2014. Since he lost the 2016 race, Camacho has been actively involved in the community, serving on several boards.

“Florez mentioned a couple of months ago that he was considering resigning,” Camacho said. “I let my intention be known to the council and the mayor that I would be interested in the seat. It was an honor to serve, it would be an honor to serve again.”

Camacho added although he is lobbying for the position, he encourages others to apply.

“I don’t want to send a message out there that the game is rigged or fixed,” he said. “I’d be very disappointed if only myself or Justin submitted an application. Political service is waning [and] people are uncomfortable with politics these days. I’d like to see more community involvement.”

The council will discuss the candidates in a closed-door session but, according to Winthrop, a list of applicants will be made publicly available. “This will be an open and transparent process,” said Winthrop, adding that the new council member will be sworn in at the Jan. 10 meeting.

Newport residents interested in the at-large Council position should submit a letter of interest detailing they would like to serve for the remainder of the current term, which runs through Dec. 1, 2018. Include a resume along with a cover letter and submit to the Office of the Mayor, City Hall, 43 Broadway, Newport, RI 02840. Submissions may also be made via email to hwinthrop@cityofnewport.com with a copy to pcofield@cityofnewport.com. The deadline for submission is Friday, Dec. 15, 2017.

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