November 19, 2016 08:33AM
By Dale P. Faulkner
Sun staff writer
WESTERLY — A public works director must be hired, the consolidated finance director positions must be separated, the municipal finance director must have a college degree and the tax assessor is now responsible for analyzing complex algebraic equations.
And those are just some of the changes required by recently ratified amendments to the town charter.
It is unclear how or when the Town Council will go about making the changes connected to the 34 ballot questions voters faced on Election Day. It is also unclear whether the changes will or must be adopted immediately, or whether some current circumstances will be grandfathered until position vacancies occur.
For instance, will Finance Director Deb Bridgham be required to obtain a college degree after voters approved a measure requiring those who hold the position to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in business, finance or accounting? Bridgham, according to Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy, obtained a GED but does not possess a college degree. Bridgham did not respond to questions for this article.
“The council president and I feel that the best next step is to have a special Town Council meeting to address all of the questions ... and to get answers from our solicitor on when the revisions go into effect and the timeline of implementation,” Kennedy said.
Larry Cioppa, chairman of the Charter Revision Commission that developed the proposed amendments that went before the voters, said he was pleased with the results. The commission pushed hard for voters to use mail ballots to allow for adequate time to research the questions. In the end, about 3,800 ballots were submitted by mail, more than three times the number for any previous local election.
“I think the people took the time to actually read the material and think about what they were being asked. That really impressed me,” Cioppa said.
Cioppa said he was surprised by the results on one of the term limit questions. While voters approved limiting members of the Town Council, School Committee and Planning Board to two consecutive terms, they did not approve a measure that would have increased the council’s terms from two years to four years.
“My sense is that might be related to some things going on right now, especially the police chief issue ... overall the results show that the voters did want to have a little more control of their local government,” Cioppa said.
Some residents have reacted strongly to the selection of Richard Silva, formerly of the West Warwick Police Department, being selected to be Westerly’s new police chief over Shawn Lacey, a 28-year veteran of the Westerly department.
The municipal and schools finance director positions were consolidated into one position in 2011, but the arrangement was never formalized by ordinance or a change to the Town Charter. On Election Day, voters decided to undo the consolidation, meaning each side — municipal and schools — must have its own director. It is unclear whether this will require a new hire or whether two current employees will fill the two positions.
Some of the changes come with a cost and are expected to add to the municipal budget.
For example, voters approved an amendment to the charter that eliminates the ability of the town manager to serve as director of public works. The voting result would seem to require hiring a new director, which Kennedy has estimated would require a total compensation package, including employment benefits, of $143,000.
As for the tax assessor, voters approved an amendment to the charter that expands and specifies the position’s duties, including a new requirement for the assessor to validate computer models and associated algorithms used by the mass appraisal company the town contracts with to perform property value appraisals.
Town officials will also have to determine whether term limits, approved by voters for the Town Council, School Committee, and Planning Board, affect current members of the three bodies, or whether they will take effect as new members are elected or appointed.
The council is also faced with the task of developing a local code of ethics as a result of the charter votes. The Charter Revision Commission’s full amendment called for the creation of a code by July 1.