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Proposed charter changes in hands of City Council

July 26, 2011

WOONSOCKET — The City Council accepted a list of 15 proposed charter amendments from the Charter Review commission and now begins its own work on which of those measures should be presented to local voters in November.
The proposals reviewed Tuesday night in Harris Hall include a proposed conversion of the city’s publicly-elected, five-member school committee to a non-elected panel named by the mayor, an expansion of the mayor’s term of office from two to four years, a change in the city election schedule from off-year to even-year elections, and an option for voter-initiated changes to be put on the ballot by a petition of 5-percent of the voting electorate.
City Council President John F. Ward said the council will hold a public hearing on the list of commission recommendations before its own consideration of the measures on Aug. 9. The council will have to vote twice to forward proposals to the ballot of the city’s Nov. 8 election, steps Ward said would be done at council meetings in August and September.
The move to strip the school committee of its elected independence is among the potentially most controversial of the measurers discussed by the council and the charter commissioners Tuesday evening.
Charter Commission Chairman Chris Fierro said while the commissioners may have held differing views on the proposals, the decisions made by the panel constituted a majority view that local voters should consider the merits of the measures it recommended.
The panel’s seven members voted unanimously to forward the school committee change to the council but Fierro, a former state representative for Woonsocket, said there was “not as much vigorous debate of the measure as I would have expected.”
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, who attended Tuesday’s meeting along with City Solicitor Joseph Carroll, and School Committee members Vimala Phongsavanh and Anita McGuire-Forcier, said while he hasn’t taken “any official position” on the change, he does view it as one people are talking about in the city, “especially when they see the difficulties we have had getting through the budget issues.”
The current make-up of all-elected officials allows for “competing forces” to exist in those debates and the needs of local children get lost in the disputes, according to Fontaine.
“I can see the merits of this proposal and I can’t go against it,” Fontaine said.
When asked her view of the change by Ward, Phongsavanh said she believes “in the system of checks and balances” that now exists with the elected committee. Making the panel appointed would place “a lot of power” over school affairs with the mayor, she said.
The charter commissioners also forwarded a group of measures concerning terms of office for elected city officials.
A motion by Fierro and member Allen Auclair giving the mayor a four-year term of office won unanimous support by the commission. The proposal includes a provision that the mayor be limited to three consecutive terms in office but there was also discussion that the term limit be separated from the initial question creating a four-year term, Fierro noted.
Fontaine said he believed the option of a four-year term for mayor would be a “very heart-felt question” to be decided by the community as a whole. “I would support this being on the ballot at this time,” Fontaine said.
Ward said the issues of whether the mayor should have a three-term limit should be separated from the term change to four years, which he said he did support.
A change to a four-year term would allow an administration more time to set a course of leadership for the city, according to Ward.
“It would let the mayor set an administrative agenda with a plan of what they want to do, some of which takes time,” Ward said.
City Councilman Daniel Gendron said he shared Ward’s view of the term change.
The option for limiting the mayor’s overall time in office would have to be discussed further by the council, the members said. They also noted that the list of proposed changes was likely to be pruned significantly to avoid confusion on the election ballot.
The council’s members also voiced concerns over the proposal for a three, two-year term limit for the Council. Gendron offered that local voters get to set a term limit every time an elected official comes up for election. If a three-term limit were to be put in place, Gendron said he would end up being the only member of the current seven-member council eligible for re-election in the next election.
“I think you need to have some member of the council with experience beyond six years,” he said.
The commission voted 4 to 3 to recommend the council three-term limit and Kathryn LeBlanc, who sponsored the change along with Allen Auclair, said the panel also considered the option of staggering terms of the panel members to address the experience concern.
Gendron remained unconvinced that the panel’s two-year terms could be staggered in a way that would allow for experienced members beyond six-years to serve on the panel.
“You would lose everybody in one fell swoop and be stuck with just me,” he said. Voters walking into the polling place always have the choice of not re-electing incumbents if they so choose, according to Gendron.
Ward asked whether the commission favored a term limit for School Committee if the change to an appointed panel was dropped and Fierro said he believed the term limit was intended to apply to both of the city’s elected panels in that case.
The council also questioned the provisions of the voter initiative recommendation introduced by Commissioners Rene Lafayette and LeBlanc.
Lafayette said a significant number of Rhode Island communities already have voter initiative in one form or another and six of the commission members agreed that Woonsocket should have that option as well.
Voting to recommend the change were commissioners Allen Auclair, Sally Anthony, Thomas Gray, Lafayette, LeBlanc, and Fierro. Commissioner N. David Bouley, a former city planner, voted against the change.
While allowing residents the option of placing initiatives on the ballot, commission members had also questioned whether the change would increase local election costs or cause unplanned-for changes in the city’s budget. Bouley, who cast the solitary vote of opposition to forwarding the measure, was not present Tuesday.
The panel also recommended the change from off-year elections to even-year elections in keeping with the state and federal election calendar, but members of the council and Fontaine questioned whether that could cost the city voter attention to its own election contests. Fontaine said he would be speaking more against that change in the future.
Also received by the Council on Tuesday were proposed changes to up the city’s bonding limit on public works projects from 20 to 30 years, increase the limit on city purchase without competitive bidding from $2,000, to $5,000, a question asking whether there should be a “standing charter review study commission,” to continue charter revision work, and also a change seeking to require all officials of appointed boards to be city residents.
The final resolutions forwarded included requirements that city budget information and information on contract negotiations be posted at the library or online, and also a change seeking to have a vacancy on the Council filled by naming the person with the next highest number of votes to the post. The proposal would reverse a change made several years ago to the current system of holding a special election, Ward noted.

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