WESTERLY — The Town Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a charter revision commission to study ways to remove the influence of politics from town boards and commissions during a special meeting Monday.
The meeting included a call for more immediate action, discussion of whether the Town Charter conflicts with the state constitution, and a councilor giving consideration to changing her vote.
The approved resolution includes the language previously developed by Councilor Jack Carson as well as two additions proposed Monday by Councilor Patricia Douglas. The commission’s task will be to study criteria for membership on town boards and commissions “relating but not limited to political party committee membership,” and the protocol employed by the council to fill vacancies on the Town Council and the School Committee.
Additionally, the commission will study two areas recommended by Douglas: a proposed charter provision that would allow the Town Council to send proposed Town Charter changes directly to voters without study by a charter revision commission; and a proposed provision prohibiting the appointment of town political committee chairmen or members of their immediate family to town employment.
The council voted 5-1 in favor of Douglas’ first provision. Councilor Jack Carson opposed the measure saying he believed all proposed changes to the charter should be studied before presentation to voters. A commission, Carson said, removes politics from the revision process.
“The seven of us are politicians. We don’t necessarily represent the majority of the people on this particular issue and it’s of such import that it needs to be studied so there’s no agenda on our part for or against the change,” Carson said.
Douglas was joined by Council President Diana Serra and Councilors Kenneth Parrilla, Caswell Cooke Jr. and Andrew Gencarelli in supporting the measure. Councilor Christopher Duhamel did not attend the meeting, which started at 5 p.m., not the usual 7 p.m. council meeting time.
The council unanimously approved Douglas’ second proposed area of study.
Douglas came close to changing her vote after Solicitor John Stockwell Payne said the state constitution allows for proposed charter changes to be sent directly to voters for consideration in apparent contrast with the Town Charter, which, he said, appears to require establishment of a commission before proposed charter changes are sent to voters. Douglas and other councilors said the Town Charter previously allowed the council to send proposed charter changes directly to voters but was apparently revised. Councilors and Town Manager Michelle Buck could not recall exactly when the charter had been changed.
Douglas refrained from changing her vote when Cooke suggested holding off on the change until Payne had time to study in greater detail whether the charter conflicts with the state constitution and whether the proposed charter changes can be put to voters in November without having to establish a charter revision committee.
The proposed charter revision is the council’s response to a petition drive initiated by resident Jack Armstrong. That effort seeks a charter revision commission to adopt the charter’s criteria for service on the Finance Board and apply it to the zoning, licensing, and planning boards. The charter prohibits members of town or state political committees from serving on the finance board.
On Monday, during the meeting, Armstrong submitted 566 signatures and asked the council to adopt the exact language of the petition as the charge to assign to the charter revision commission. The charter requires the council to either appoint a charter revision commission or ask voters to approve doing so when a petition with 400 or more verified voter signatures is submitted to the council.
Armstrong said the changes proposed by the petition drive “benefit perceptions in the town and help us get through some rough areas.” The petition drive reflects Armstrong’s dissatisfaction with recent actions of the zoning board as well as his contention that Zoning Board of Review Chairman Robert Ritacco should not be allowed to continue in his duel roles as chairman of the board and chairman of the Democratic Town Committee.
Resident Fred Sculco praised the council for considering the proposed charter changes but asked for an ordinance to accomplish the same thing that Armstrong’s petition seeks. The proposed change would quickly rid town government of a “lack of transparency, a kind of duplicity and questionable behavior even a vague cloud of suggestion which we can not have,” Sculco said.
In accordance with the Town Charter, a charter revision commission must have nine members. As of Monday the council had received six applications from potential members. Applications, available on the town website and at the Town Clerk’s office, must be submitted by 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Cooke said he would ask the council,within the next month, to change its rules for appointments to reflect the changes requested in Armstrong’s petition. If the council adopts the changes, Cooke said, it will send a message to the public. “Then we will really be getting out in front of this,” Cooke said.
Serra deflected suggestions the council was prolonging the matter by seeking establishment of a charter revision commission, noting that she could have suggested simply asking voters in November to approve the change. “That would be the easy way out and irresponsible,” Serra said.
To be safe, Serra said the council should follow the charter’s current provisions.
“I feel as president of this council and you can agree with me or you can disagree, it’s OK, but I’m going to abide by the charter,” Serra said.
Gencarelli said he was troubled by the apparent conflict between the town charter and the state constitution and the lack of clarity on how to proceed.
“It bothers me that we sit up here and not know which laws to follow; maybe that’s why when we sit in the back room we’re getting sued 50,000 times,” Gencarelli said.
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