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Ballot controversy in North Smithfield

October 28, 2010

NORTH SMITHFIELD — Town officials are scrambling to get the word out that if voters Tuesday approve local ballot question number five — whether or not the current elected town administrator should be changed to an appointed town manager — then the effective date of that change would be Dec. 1, 2012.
Due to what town officials are calling an oversight, the town manager versus town administrator question was submitted to the Secretary of State's office without listing an effective date. Therefore, there is no effective date listed on the ballot voters will see at the polls on Tuesday.
As a result, town officials say voters might assume that if Question 5 passes, a town manager-style government would go into effect beginning Nov. 3. But that's not the case, they say.
The current ballot includes seven proposed changes to the town charter. If voters approve ballot Question 5 — to change the form of government from an elected Town Administrator to a Town Manager appointed by the Town Council — the new government will take effect Dec. 1, 2012.
As for ballot Questions 6 through 12, if they are approved, they will become effective Dec. 1 of this year. Those changes include:
• Change the due date for budget requests; require the School Department to follow the same timeline as all other town departments and establish staggered terms for the Budget Committee members;
• Allow the Town Council to vote in executive session and to seal the records until such time as the need for confidentiality has expired.
• Require the town solicitor, assistant town solicitor and the School Department solicitor be certified to practice law in both the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island.
• Establish minimum hiring criteria for the town’s finance director.
• Delete the section relating to the Council of Defense and insert a new section establishing an Emergency Management Agency.
• Change the name of the North Smithfield Industrial Development Commission to the North Smithfield Economic Development Commission.
• Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation as needed, render language gender-neutral and to clarify language with no change in meaning in Articles I through XVIII.
Town officials realized the Question 5 effective date omission when a resident pointed that fact out last week.
As a result of the glitch, the Town Council on Monday voted to issue "editor’s notes" clarifying effective dates for the proposed changes to the town’s charter. Those notes are in the form of updates on the town's Web site and newspaper and radio publicity. Copies of the ballot questions and a red-lined copy of how the town charter will be amended if all ballot questions win voter approval - including the editor’s notes - are available online at the town’s Web site or at the town clerk’s office.
"The reason we are sending this (information) out is that there is no date on the ballot for the start of this change," said Town Administrator Paulette D. Hamilton said. "In full disclosure, we want to alert people of this oversight and to make sure they are aware."
"According to my research, absent a date certain, it would be assumed that the bill goes into effect upon passage," she added. "The clarification is to educate residents to the intent of the legislation."
"I believe it was an oversight, however, the fact remains that all absentee ballots and anyone who does not see the press releases will enter the voting booth under the assumption that all eight questions will go into effect upon passage," said Hamilton, adding that more than 100 residents have already cast emergency and absentee ballots.
Hamilton said should the question be rejected, the clarification after the fact will be moot. If it passes, there may be challenges to the validity of the question, she said.
That was the fear of some members of the Town Council Monday, particularly Councilor Paul Zwolenski who said if the question passes it is likely that someone will challenge the legality of the vote.
Town Solicitor Richard Nadeau told the council that it does not have the authority to remove the question from the ballot.
The issue of changing from an elected town administrator to a town manager appointed by the Town Council was debated by a charter panel five years ago but no recommendations were forwarded to the election ballot and an earlier bid that did get a question on the ballot was turned down by the voters.

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