2007-12-28 / News

Council ends year with a new look, new focus

By Tom Shevlin

With three new members, the Jamestown Town Council has a different look than it did at the beginning of the year. However, it continues to work on familiar issues as 2008 approaches.

Early in the year, debate swirled around the town solicitor position. The debate was sparked in November 2006 by an oral request from then-solicitor Lauriston Parks to take over the town's legal work from fellow solicitor William Harsch. By February, Harsch, who had served as town solicitor since July 2003, submitted his resignation following a public falling out with councilors over a dispute about executive session meetings. After reviewing 11 bids, councilors awarded the position to current town solicitor Peter Ruggiero.

Also in February, lead paint contamination inside the Beavertail Lighthouse keeper's quarters and around the perimeter of the tower led to renewed controversy over control of the facility, its use for affordable housing, and the future of the light. By May, Beavertail Lighthouse Museum stakeholders were preparing their bid to take control of the light from the government, while Town Administrator Bruce Keiser recommended that the town forfeit its claim altogether. In the most recent development earlier this month, newly elected councilor Robert Sutton had renewed calls for the town to step in and assert its position as a rightful caretaker for the island landmark.

In April, councilors ratified a letter of opposition regarding ongoing work to site a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility at Weaver's Cove in Fall River, Mass. The letter, sent to Coast Guard Capt. Roy Nash, stated, "The council believes that the proposed project poses unacceptable risks from the standpoint of navigational safety, environmental quality, and bay security."

After years of debate, councilors approved the site of a new highway barn on Taylor Point in May, with then-Council President David Long casting the deciding vote in a split 3 to 2 decision. Long, who had previously been a supporter of building the facility on Lot 47 on North Main Road, held the council chambers in suspense as he switched his vote. By September, a special election was held seeking voter approval for the $1.5 million project, and town engineers were finally given the green light to commence work on the long-awaited barn.

Also in May, the council unanimously passed an emergency resolution outlining seasonal restrictions at the East Ferry pier, and also adopted a $19.8 million budget for fiscal year 2008.

In June, council members toured the town-owned piers at East Ferry to examine needed repairs that had been identified by Harbor Commission members. Councilors continued their discussions over the East Ferry facilities through the end of the year, and the matter is expected to be revisited in 2008. The town also endorsed the creation of an island art district.

By July, councilors were focused on hammering out details with the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) for the purchase of a piece of land needed to site the town's highway barn on Taylor Point. At the same time, town employees were gearing up in anticipation of the opening of the new Town Hall in the fall.

In August, debate surrounded three upcoming votes: the highway barn, the farmland buyback proposal, and the town's traditional municipal elections. On Aug. 28, voters went to the polls for the first of the three votes and approved a referendum allocating $1.5 million for the construction of a highway garage at Taylor Point, by a vote of 934 to 753.

In the most dramatic moment of the year, over 400 Jamestown residents turned out on Tuesday, Sept.18, to weigh in on the town's plans to participate in a farmland buyback deal to preserve 145 acres of the island's open space. The vote was emphatic and unanimous.

Jamestown's Wind Energy Committee also received the support of the town in the form of $25,000 allocation from the town council to conduct a feasibility study for the possible construction of a windmill on the island.

October marked the opening of the new Town Hall. The building, which was designed by island resident William Burgin's noted Newport architectural firm Burgin and Lambert, came in within the town-approved $3 million budget, and held its first council session to a packed house at an Oct. 29 meeting.

In November, Jamestown voters went to the polls again, this time to elect a new slate of town councilors. At the top of the ticket was former Town Administrator Robert Sutton, followed by twoterm councilor Julio DiGiando, newcomer Michael White, and incumbents William Kelly and Barbara Szepatowski. Stepping aside was Town Council President David Long, while councilor Michael Schnack narrowly lost re-election.

Controversy over the election of the new council president, which has traditionally been awarded to the top vote-getter, ensued after Sutton was passed over by a 3 to 2 vote in favor of former Town Council vice-president DiGiando. However, by their second meeting, councilors had refocused themselves on prioritizing issues for the next year.

Coming off a year in which long-standing matters, like the siting for the town's new highway barn and the construction of a new town hall were settled, councilors will again deal with the completion of the town's highway barn, address improvements to the town's East Ferry piers, examine the disposition of the Beavertail Lighthouse, and more.

They will begin to address some of these matters when it meets for the first time in 2008 on Jan. 14.

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