EAST PROVIDENCE — The City Council, at a special session held Wednesday night, Aug. 9, approved the vast majority of 29 so-called “substantive” amendments recommended by the Charter Review Commission seated earlier this year.
Charter Commission Chairman Jim Russo and Assistant City Solicitor Dylan Conley, who acted as legal counsel to the Commission, led the four-person body through the discussion, which dealt mostly with revisions done to align the governing document with the voter-approved change to an elected “strong” mayor. Council President and ceremonial mayor Jim Briden was absent from the proceedings.
The Council gave its unanimous or near consensus nod to 24 of the Commission’s proposals, including changing the elected mayor’s term of office from two to four years, adding a recall provision for all elected officers in the city mirroring that as written in the Rhode Island Constitution, delaying the start of each legislation session from its current December date to the “first Tuesday following the first Monday” in January of the ensuing year after an election, making future department heads “at will” employees serving at the pleasure of the mayor, while also updating and clarifying a bevy of the duties and wording associated with a host of other elements included in the Charter.
On the recall provision, specifically, Ward 3 Councilman Joe Botelho applauded the efforts of the Commission, saying, “This was very thoughtfully done…well done.” The recall provision as proposed by the Commission now matches that set by the state in terms of both legal and numerical standards.
The revision pertaining to department heads only takes effect with future openings in those positions once the switch to the mayoral form is completed. Mr. Conley noted current directors are protected by existing employment standards and laws. When the mayor is seated, personnel hired subsequently will reflect the composition akin to the “president’s cabinet,” in the words of Mr. Russo. They can hired and fired at the mayor’s discretion as well with a change in administration following an election.
Three of the five changes where the Council dissented from the Commission’s recommendations were removed completely from consideration.
At the behest of Ward 4 Councilman Bryan Faria, a move to make the City Clerk position that of an appointment by the mayor was struck, leaving it as the only top administrative post with complete oversight by the Council. The body was told the Council retained hiring authority of the clerk in five of the nine municipalities in the state with the strong mayor form.
Mr. Faria hypthosized the mayor will likely have a “chief of staff, a secretary and probably even a press secretary,” adding the Council needed to “maintain” the clerk to serve at its legislative assistant.
The Council also struck down a Commission proposal to align the city’s taxation policy with that of the state. It would have allowed the mayor/council to increase property taxes up to 4 percent each fiscal year from the 3.5 percent cap.
Lastly, the Council struck from consideration a Commission recommendation to make Information Technology a fully recognized and official part of the city’s department structure.
Of the two remaining Commission proposals, each relating to the other, no action was taken on one and the another was deferred for further discussion. The Council declined to discuss a recommendation on Capital Projects, though in some regard it was considered in a proposed amendment to the Budget Reserve Fund (BRF), most often colloquially referred to as the “Rainy Day Fund.”
The Commission proposed increasing the annual contribution to the BRF from 10 to 12 percent. At the same time, it would create a separate Unreserved Fund with monies geared towards capital improvements. The 12 percent contribution would be split with seven percent going to the BFR and five going to the Unrestricted Fund.
In supporting the proposal, state-appointed Municipal Finance Advisor Paul Luba, who closely observed the work of the Commission, said it would give the mayor and council greater “flexibility” to use surplus monies while maintaining and/or improving the city’s standing with bond ratings agencies and decreasing its reliance of Tax Anticipatory Notes necessary to keep the city solvent each year.
With Messrs. Russo and Conley once again present for guidance, the Council is scheduled to give its second and necessary final approval to the Commission proposals while also hearing from the public during a meeting set for Tuesday night, Aug. 15, at 7:30 in the City Hall Chamber.
At that August 15 meeting, it is expected the Council will take up a resolution calling for the substantive Charter amendments to be presented to the voters at a special election later this calendar year.
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