City Council members renewed their commitment to an ongoing strategic planning process this week, pledging to work over the coming months to build upon an adopted set of goals that they hope will set the city up for sustained long-term success.
In what was their first strategic planning session in over a year, councilors revisited their recent accomplishments and looked ahead toward some as of yet unfulfilled goals.
The meeting, which was held in the Program Room of the Newport Public Library on Tuesday, Feb. 11 was relatively straightforward and business like. Unlike previous strategic planning sessions, this one benefited from a clear directive drawn from a landmark strategy document developed and adopted in 2012.
Volunteer Hank Kniskern, who has moderated the process for over five years, stressed that developing a meaningful strategic plan can be a lengthy and sometimes tedious process. However, it can also be extremely beneficial.
Former Mayor John Trifero started the process during his administration, which has continued over the years with several fits and starts.
In recent years, the process has materialized into an adopted strategic plan focused on four key areas: communication, infrastructure, economic development, and continuous improvement.
“There has been a lot of demonstrable progress,” Kniskern said, adding that he has seen the city begin to work better as a team since the process became a priority.
“The most important thing to do,” he said, “is to create an environment and culture that values the strategic plan and process.”
Currently, Kniskern said, the city has developed what amounts to a strategic planning document – but still has work to do in order to develop a full-fledged strategic plan. A plan, he explained, is data and results-driven, with progressive milestones and accountability measurements that provide stakeholders with a clear view of their accomplishments and shortcomings. A strategic goal, on the other hand, is more of a vision document.
“We have a solid foundation,” Kniskern said, adding, “We are much better off than we were five years ago. Without this foundation, we would still be churning.”
Indeed, according to City Manager Jane Howington, since beginning to meet with the council to develop their strategic plan, she has relied on their stated priority areas in developing and directing projects within City Hall.
From efforts to improve its communication flow to expediting certain infrastructure improvements, while the council may not have a traditional strategic plan, their vision has played out across the city.
And, according to Howington, certain other initiatives that are being undertaken today “will benefit the city 5-10 years from now.”
Councilor Michael T. Farley, in his first strategic planning session, said that he appreciated the work that has been done thus far, and would like to get to work developing a true strategic plan.
For Mayor Henry F. Winthrop, that means resolving to make the document already adopted by the council even better.
“We all want to make this product better,” he said. “We won’t accomplish that tonight, or at the next meeting. It might not be accomplished until the end of 2014. It’s a step-by-step, painful process.”
Third Ward Councilwoman Kathryn E. Leonard agreed. “I think the goals are good,” she said. However, because so much of the city’s agenda and spending priorities are in some way connected to what happens on the state and federal levels, she noted it’s important to be mindful that those goals will likely remain a “moving target.”
Since being elected to the council seven years ago with what he said was a complex understanding of city government, Second Ward Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin said that his view today is a much simpler one.
Serving on the council, he said, “is all about service delivery.”
“We’re doing much better than we were 10 years ago,” McLaughlin said. However, their task remains the same. “We don’t get to build spaceships. We get to pave roads, plow snow, and repair pipes.”
Meanwhile, First Ward Councilor Marco T. Camacho, the youngest member of the group, said that he believes the council needs to think generationally. “I remember Newport at 350; I’m living in Newport at 375. What will Newport look like at 400?” That, he said, should be among the council’s guiding questions.
“In my mind’s eye, I can walk down Broadway and see the overlap between how it was during my childhood, what it is today, and what it could look like at 400,” Camacho said before cautioning his fellow councilors against developing a document that isn’t much more than a “glorified [Capital Improvement Plan].”
Kniskern suggested that the council begin to engage with staff and the public to begin formulating a concrete plan upon which future councils will be able to rely.
Winthrop praised the idea, and welcomed the chance for public input. “I don’t think we can get enough public input,” he said.
“We only have tomorrow in front us,” Kniskern said. “We can’t go back.”