2009-05-14 / Front Page

Town Council members share opinions on term durations

By Tyler Will

Jamestown Town Council members are divided on whether council term durations should remain at two years or be increased to three or four. When the councilors do agree, they agree for different reasons. The issue will be discussed and open to public comment at the next Town Council meeting on Monday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

Councilors who think term durations should be increased said short terms compromise the continuity of the town because long-term projects will receive differing levels of attention as the councilors change. They believe councilors who are new will spend most of their first year getting comfortable with the job procedures and will then have to face re-election shortly thereafter.

But, councilors who think term durations should stay at two years said longer terms wear councilors out and shorter terms allow residents

to remove bad councilors. However, all five sitting council members said the town should sync the local elections with state and national ones, for both voter turnout and financial reasons.

Councilor Barbara Szepatowksi said each election costs the town about $10,000.

Councilor Bill Kelly said the island voter turnout is about 70 percent during a national election and about half that during a strictly local election.

Council President Julio Di- Giando said a four-year term would reduce the number of quality council members because with elections half as often, fewer people could get elected. And, DiGiando said, a four-year term would allow a poor councilor to remain in office that much longer.

"There are a million reasons why people would be a bad person to elect, and that only comes out after they get elected," Di- Giando said.

In a democratic society, there are checks and balances, and he said the only check and balance system available to Jamestown is the election. He would support local elections being syncedwith national and state elections, because he said voter turnout is much higher when local elections coincide with state or national ones.

He said a previous argument for keeping Jamestown elections out-of-sync was so voters could focus on Jamestown issues, which DiGiando said was not a sufficient argument.

Council Vice President Michael White said two-year terms hurt the continuity of the town, because projects like the town garage and water system upgrade require more than two years to complete. Other long-term projects include the wind energy proposal, he said, and other reasons to increase the term duration revolve around campaigning requirements.

"You spend more time than necessary having to run for offi ce," White said. While the town's continuity may be jolted by an election, he said the smalltown nature of Jamestown helps to ensure that new councilors are familiar with pending projects. A looming election probably would not deter a councilor from starting a project that may not be finished, also because of the small-town aspect, he said.

But longer terms would allow more to be done, and would be helpful to the town, White said.

White said he strongly supports staggering council terms, a system already used by the School Committee. In such a system, officials are elected on a rotating basis, so the entire body is not refreshed at every election. Congress also uses the same system.

"I do not think it is a good idea. You could literally replace the entire Town Council every time you have an election," White said.

Councilor Szepatowski said the term duration should be increased because councilors often have ideas for projects that take much longer than two years to complete. She cited the Teen Center and an animal shelter as examples, which she said she has advocated since she was elected. "That is the frustrating thing," Szepatowksi said, "how long it takes to get things done."

She said most people are not familiar with Town Council meetings and do not go very often. When they get elected, they take a while to get comfortable, and it takes about a year to fully understand the ins and outs of the job.

"I think the majority of people who run are regular citizens, not people who are out of the government," she said.

Szepatowski said a longer term would also reduce the number of elections the town has to pay for, which cost about $10,000 each, and the voter turnout is much higher when the town elections are held with state or national elections.

She also said she has never heard anyone mention wanting to oust a councilor.

"I have not had anybody come up and tell me 'no, we want you out in two years'," Szepatowski said.

Though she supports a longer term, she said a short term does not deter people from starting projects. She said residents can get projects done, whether they are on the Town Council or not, but it is more difficult.

"If you have a project that is going to be of value to the town, and you have citizen support, it does not matter if you are on the council," Szepatowksi said.

Councilor Kelly said he had not made a decision about the term duration, but said the council terms should remain at two years, because job and personal situations can change rapidly and long terms can wear councilors out.

"It gets to be a drag by the end of the four years, you are pretty ready to do something else," he said. He added that if a councilor were re-elected, that person could stay in office for eight years, a long time for a community of Jamestown's size. The part-time status also requires councilors to be flexible, which can be diffi cult.

Kelly said he bought a house in Florida in mid-term, and travel for town-related business became cumbersome. However, he said one council will have to serve three years to get in-sync with national elections, which he has no problem with.

However, local elections cost the town $10,000, which he said is a large amount of money considering Jamestown's size. Less frequent elections would save the town money, Kelly said. "People in Jamestown are very reluctant to see unnecessary spending of their tax dollars," he said.

Councilor Robert Sutton was contacted but was not available for comment.

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