WESTERLY — A proposal to ask residents to revisit Town Council term limits was dropped this week after the town attorney raised concerns about the timing of the potential change to the Town Charter.
The council had been expected to discuss the possibility of approving a question that would have appeared on the ballot for the November election asking residents to get rid of the requirement that members of the Town Council serve no more than two consecutive two-year terms. Term limits were approved as an amendment to the Town Charter by voters in 2016 and then reaffirmed in October after the Town Council sought their removal.
On Monday, Council President Christopher Duhamel said Town Attorney William Conley Jr. had provided the council with a new memorandum raising questions about the propriety of the current council approving a potential change to the Town Charter that would have affected six of the seven councilors. Councilor William Aiello would not be affected because he is currently serving his second consecutive term; the other six have indicated they plan to run for a second consecutive term in November.
Conley did not attend the council's virtual meeting. Instead, a lawyer from his firm attended.
Duhamel said Conley's memorandum stated, "... it [might] be a conflict of interest if the six who would be affected put it forward." To clarify the potential conflict, Duhamel said an opinion would have to be sought from the state Ethics Commission.
The council had to suspend its rules to discuss the potential charter changes because it did not follow a rule that requires matters to be discussed at a workshop or committee of the whole meeting prior to appearing on a regular or special meeting agenda.
In the end, on Monday, the council agreed only to put a proposed charter amendment question on whether the charter should continue to designate public works director as a mandated position.
Voters in 2016 established the public works director position in the Town Charter. The initiative was put forward by the Citizens Town Charter Advisory Commission that sought to end the practice of the town manager serving in the position.
Commission members, at the time, said the town was beset with road and infrastructure project delays and other problems and that town managers lacked experience, education and training to perform the functions of the job.
On Monday, councilors said the position, which has been vacant since last summer, was not needed. They said the current system of using superintendents in the utilities, public works and engineering departments, with input from the town manager, worked well.
"I don't see why we wouldn't put the option to delete an expensive position, which experience has show us we do not need, on the ballot," Councilor Sharon Ahern said.
Councilor William Aiello, the only councilor to vote against putting the question on the ballot, said the council had not provided residents enough time to discuss potential charter changes. Ahern, Duhamel and Councilors Karen Cioffi, Suzanne Giorno, Brian McCuin, Caswell Cooke Jr. voted in favor of the question.
In other business:
- A motion to fund the town's share of the cost of dredging Winnapaug Pond with five annual $200,000 allotments from the town budget failed by a 3-4 vote. Ahern, Cooke, and Cioffi voted in favor while Giorno, McCuin, Duhamel and Aiello were opposed. The result of the vote means voters will see a ballot question that asks them to approve borrowing the $1 million from the state Infrastructure Bank and paying the loan off over 10 years. Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said his staff was recommending borrowing the funds at an estimated 1.5% interest rate as a means to reduce demand on the town's annual operating budget.
Ahern said she was opposed to asking voters to approve any bonds or borrowing in November because of the financial uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. She also predicted voters would reject bond and borrowing measures in November.
"I'm reluctant to go against the staff's recommendation, and I'm reluctant to go against the 1.5% interest rate, but I'm even more reluctant to have any bond questions on upcoming ballot," Ahern said, noting that most of the town's current bond debt will be paid off by 2026.
If voters reject borrowing the funds, the project will be paid for with funds in the town budget, officials said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to dredge about 75,000 cubic yards of material from the pond as part of a $2.7 million eel-grass restoration effort.
- The council also approved, by a 4-3 vote, a measure to ask voters in November to approve borrowing up to $1.55 million to serve as the town's match for a proposed project to upgrade part of the sewer plant on Margin Street. If voters reject the borrowing proposal, the project will move forward with the local match coming from the Sewer Department's fund balance or surplus account. The account currently holds about $5 million, officials said.
Giorno, Duhamel, McCuin, and Aiello voted in favor of asking voters to approve borrowing the funds for the sewer project. Ahern, Cioffi and Cooke were opposed.
- Councilors also learned that the town's application for a $3.17 million grant from the state Department of Environmental Management to construct a protective berm around the Margin Street sewer plant was denied. Rooney said a new application with a new cost benefit analysis would be submitted.