EAST PROVIDENCE — When voters go to the polls next Tuesday, Nov. 7, for a special election on proposed changes to City Charter coinciding with East Providence’s switch in governance to a strong mayoral form in 2018, they’ll be casting their ballots on proposals made by the Charter Review Commission seated for some four months earlier this year.
The Commission offered up a series of amendments to the charter, clearly outlining the authorities of the newly elected mayor and the city council. The changes were approved for ballot consideration by the City Council. And the East Providence municipal law department structured them into the six questions to be posed to voters.
“We’re moving to two separate branches to govern the City of East Providence, the legislative and the executive, and you’ve got to give both sides equal powers to do what they need to do,” said Commission Chairman Jim Russo, a lawyer by profession.
“The law department drafted the six resolutions. I need to acknowledge the work of Dylan Conley. He was our point man on this,” Mr. Russo continued, referring to the assistant solicitor who served as the Charter Review Commission’s legal advisor. “They grouped the amendments as to how they relate to each other. These amendments reflect the newly created strong mayor form of government.”
Question 1 pertains to the length of the mayor’s term. Voters in 2016 overwhelmingly supported the switch from the manager-council to elected mayor-council form by a 73-27 percent majority. The wording of that ballot initiative called for a two-year term. The Commission approved seeking to change it to a four-year term.
“I would say Question 1 is the most important because a two-year term, by the time the mayor finds the office, they’re already running for re-election again,” Mr. Russo said. “There’re all important. I think every single one of them will benefit the city. But that four-year term is crucial.”
Added Commission member Rick Lawson, “This gives the mayor the power to enact an agenda, and I think that’s why people elect a mayor, for the agenda.”
Question 2 deals with a concern of many who both supported and didn’t want the governance switch: Recall. The recall provision to be added to the charter would be for all elected officials (mayor, council, school committee) and the ways about how it would be structured are laid out in detail.
“The recall, we really wanted it not to be used as a political tool. It shouldn’t be used as a political tool,” said Mr. Lawson.
Question 3 deals mostly with mayoral authority. It defines subpeona powers, the veto process, replacing the mayor or council/school committee members during brief absences and changing the date of inauguration for elected officials from December to January following the election.
Another important element of the question, it changes the word “salary” for elected officials to “compensation,” so to as include all potential benefits like health, phone, travel, etc.
Question 4 is related to appointment powers. The Commission approved amendments giving most of the power to appointment department heads, board members and judges to the mayor. Specific to boards, they must have equal representation from each of the city’s four wards.
“We pushed for ward representation on the boards. You have to have at least one person from each ward on the boards,” Mr. Lawson.
The council backed the proposals except for that of city clerk. The position remains filled at the purview of the council. Of note as well, the change would not affect current department heads, excluding the city clerk. They are actually “grandfathered” into their positions for as long as they wish pending performance, so no new mayor could replace a current department head except “for cause.” After the change in the form of government, whenever a current department head leaves the position, his or her successor will then “serve at the pleasure of the mayor.”
“If Question 3 doesn’t pass, for instance, you can still function. But if a mayor doesn’t have the power to make appointments, then it’s really not a ‘strong mayor.’ It would weaken his or her authority to not be able to make any appointments,” said Mr. Russo.
Question 5 clarifies more acutely how the finance department operates and amends the language of the Budget Reserve Fund (aka “Rainy Day” Fund) approved by voters during the election of 2012. On the latter, instead of restricting use of all 10 percent of the fund balance, the Charter Commission and council approved increasing the fund to 12 percent total, leaving seven restricted and five to be used at the discretion of the mayor and council.
Nothing that both City Finance Director Malcolm Moore and state-appointed Municipal Finance Advisor Paul Luba were consulted on the change, Mr. Lawson said, “The budget reserve fund increases to 12 percent, but five percent is unrestricted for use for things like infrastructure and other improvements.”
Finally, Question 6 attempts to define outdated portions of the charter that could not be changed by a simple majority vote of the council. Earlier in the process, the commission authored a Technical Amendment, which cleared up and modernized some of the literal language of the document. The council approved the Technical Amendment. Those changes take effect notwithstanding Tuesday’s vote.
The amendments included in Question 6, among other things, codify requirements for the fire and police chief positions, define workplace environment guidelines and redefine how electoral wards are to be determined in the future.
“Basically we looked through the whole way East Providence governs itself and with the mayor coming,” said Mr. Lawson. “We wanted to make sure he or she has the power to enact their agenda. So we feel these are good updates.”
Regardless of the results of Tuesday’s vote, East Providence will have an elected mayor form of government. The General Assembly gave its formal acknowledgement of the change during the 2017 session. If by chance all of the questions failed next week, the changes would revert to wording in the question approved by the voters in November 2016, while also including the technical amendments made by the commission and approved by the council.
“I would urge passage of all of these because, first of all, it goes further than the technical amendment passed in reconciling the charter with the mayor form of government. That’s really important,” said Mr. Russo. “The term length, the general feeling was two years is just too short for obvious reasons. You’d be campaigning again before you know it. And the recall, again for obvious reasons, is a check on the mayor, council and school committee. The rest of them really do give the mayor ‘executive’ powers. And some current practices, we’re codifying. So that’s why I think it’s important.
“I would strongly hope that they all pass, however, any of them can function on their own. But I think what would happen if one doesn’t pass, I think there would be (another charter) review…Technically, we have a mayor form of government already. We just haven’t had the election yet.”