WESTERLY — Residents wishing to suggest changes to the Town Charter have until June 15 to do so and are encouraged to use a form that is available on the municipal website, at the police station and at the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce office.
The Town Council plans to review proposals it receives, and some members are considering recommending their own changes for inclusion on the November ballot. A majority of council members would have to approve each potential ballot question. The charter provides an outline for the form and function of municipal government and is sometimes referred to as the town’s constitution.
The online version of the form indicates respondents must provide their names and addresses, but council President Edward Morrone on Tuesday said he would consider recommended charter changes made anonymously.
“Some people are skittish about providing their name and I understand that. I don’t have a problem with someone not providing their name, and I would hope others would not,” Morrone said.
During their meeting Monday, councilors disagreed on questions they might propose. Town Councilor Jean Gagnier said he is unlikely to vote in favor of anything more than changes intended to improve language in the charter and to address conflicts with state law.
“I am reticent to vote for anything to be put on there except for housekeeping matters … if you are going to do this, it has to be done in a deliberative manner,” Gagnier said.
Gagnier also suggested the council compile a list of proposed substantive changes from the public and transmit it to the new Town Council after the November election. The new council could then appoint a commission and ask it to to study specific parts of the charter. To recommend substantial changes six months before the election is not appropriate, he said.
“We had two years. If we wanted to do this, we should have worked on it a while back, but we didn’t,” Gagnier said.
Councilor Mario Celico reiterated a statement he made during a previous meeting, saying he would not vote in favor of attempts to undo charter changes approved by voters in 2016. Councilor Philip Overton disagreed, saying he wanted a proposed amendment to the charter that would rescind the municipal code of ethics approved by voters in 2016.
Overton said voters were misled into thinking there was no financial cost associated with a local code of ethics. The code, he said, brings a need for investigators, lawyers and other potential expenditures. Additionally, Overton said, a local ethics code is unnecessary since state law includes ethics provisions. Further, he said, the local code could become a weapon for political fighting.
Councilor William Aiello said the 2016 charter revision was hindered by too many questions being placed on the ballot. Voters, including himself, did not have adequate time to study the questions, he said.
If the council has a specific goal, Councilor Karen Cioffi said, it should work on it, but otherwise she questioned the need for charter revision just two years after the most recent revision. The council could easily receive a flood of proposed changes and will have to face disappointed residents who will question whether the council gave their ideas proper consideration, she said.
“Is the council looking to take the place of a charter revision commission … because I think now we’re going to open up a flood gate,” Cioffi said.
Council President Edward Morrone said he shared Overton’s view of the local ethics code and also called for a charter amendment to remove a provision that states the qualifications for the position of municipal finance director.
“I don’t agree with the fact that the only credentials that are listed in the town charter are those for the finance director. I think that’s an absurdity … I think that may have been chosen as a misstep,” Morrone said.
The 2016 Charter Revision Commission proposed establishing the finance director’s job qualifications in the charter after revelations that former Finance Director Deb Bridgham did not have a college degree and had not graduated from high school. Instead, she had a general education diploma, also known as a GED. It was also revealed that the position’s qualifications had been changed by appointed officials shortly before Bridgham was promoted to the job.
Town Clerk Donna Giordano said the proposed ballot questions must be submitted to the state by Aug 8.