Newport This Week

Charter Review Considers Changes to Boards and Commissions

The Newport Charter Review Commission is contemplating changes that could alter the membership on some city boards and commissions.

The discussion came at a commission meeting March 28, during which members were evaluating a section in Newport’s charter that defines the Tax Appeals Board. The question was posed if being a real estate agent and a member of the board creates a conflict of interest.

“A real estate agent is not setting rates,” said commission chair Maureen Cronin. “They have a lot of knowledge about the value of that house to make a judgment that the house is worth or not worth what the estimating body determined it to be.”

As outlined in the charter, the city’s governing document, the Tax Appeals Board considers appeals from property owners regarding the assessed value of their property. The board has the power to direct the tax assessor to change property evaluations. Three board members are elected biennially to serve six-year terms.

Currently, all three members of the board are listed realtors in Newport. Chair Karen O’Brien is an agent with William Raveis, Paul Tobak works at Hogan Associates, and Paul Bernard owns and operates Buy Me Bernard Realtors.

The commission was responding to feedback from O’Brien, who suggested that language around membership of the board may need to be changed. She wrote to the commission that all current members had served “for years” and that adding an alternate member would allow the board to still form a quorum if a recusal occurs, which happens frequently when a board member has a potential conflict of interest.

The fact that the board’s chair was requesting an alternate member “shows they’re wanting to work in the city’s best interest,” Cronin said.

The city’s canvassing authority has a similar makeup, with three City Council-appointed members and two alternates in case a recusal or absence occurs.

“We already have this model in place and it works, so that’s a vote of confidence,” said commission member Bari Freeman.

The city charter dictates that Tax Appeals Board members be selected based in part on their expertise.

“The members of said board shall be selected upon the basis of their knowledge of the subject of property taxation and real estate value,” the charter reads.

Members must also be residents of Newport for at least five years and must vacate their seat if they move.

After some deliberation, the commission floated the idea of requiring a range of voices on such a public body.

“It’s a multifaceted expertise that can come from different perspectives,” said Cronin. “You would have the expertise by being a professional salesperson that understands the market, you’ve got the expertise of somebody that works in housing, whether that be fair housing or housing assistance, and you’ve also got the expertise of municipal leadership and understanding what the taxes mean to the community as a whole.

“Each one of them has a different facet from which to be able to contribute to listening to a taxpayer, as opposed to all coming from the same pool of knowledge.”

The idea to add language that would require a set of members with diverse professional backgrounds was also considered for other city boards and commissions, and came as the Charter Review Commission weighs both large-scale changes for the public bodies and smaller, more specific ones depending on the commission or board.

The Charter Review Commission was established by the City Council and serves in an advisory capacity. The commission will present its proposal for amendments to the charter in May. If approved by the council, the changes would head to the ballot for public vote.

The commission was established by City Council resolution and must present its proposal for changes or amendments no later than May 11. The commission meets next on March 31, April 7 and April 14 at 4:30 p.m.

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