2011-05-05 / Front Page

Council looks at voting procedures

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Jamestown Town Council this week agreed to reconstitute the Charter Review Committee as the first step towards revising the voting procedures at financial town meetings. A petition to eliminate voice and hand votes and replace them with paper ballots has been submitted to the council by the Jamestown Taxpayers Association.

The council met on May 2 for only 45 minutes. The meeting was unusually brief because it was held just one week after the April 25 meeting and the agenda was sparse. It was during the previous meeting that JTA members regaled the councilors with a recitation of the voting problems, which marred the 2010 Financial Town Meeting.

Signed by 503 residents, the petition says a change to paper or “secret” ballots would “increase the number of people voting on an issue and eliminate individuals’ fear of intimidation or reprisal from his or her constituency. Our current system calls for a verbal yea/nay vote or a hand count which can be erroneous depending on the moderator.”

Last year’s Financial Town Meeting met every expectation of uncertainty and chaos because of a controversy sparked by a budget proposal to reduce the funding for an animal control officer. The voting shifted from voice to hand whenever the moderator failed to discern a clear majority shouted by the voters.

However, by breaking up the hand votes into quadrants, the moderator provided time for some unscrupulous individuals to rush around the packed gymnasium in an attempt to vote more than once.

The petition seeks to ensure a smooth process by limiting all votes to paper ballots. JTA President Blake Dickinson expressed the view that the adoption of different procedures could be implemented through a petition to revise the Code of Ordinances.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero replied that there are probably ways to avoid a charter amendment, but pointed out that revising the charter would be the best approach because “it’s the only way to [change voting procedures] permanently. Otherwise, the changes would be ad hoc and they could change every year.”

Ruggiero also pointed out that amending the charter by petition is not permissible under the state law enabling municipalities to adopt a home rule charter, which Jamestown did in 1981. “This issue,” Ruggiero said, “came up in a Rhode Island Supreme Court case involving Middletown, and the court ruled that, once Home Rule is adopted, the petition right goes away.”

The councilors agreed, passing a motion to reconstitute the Charter Review Committee at its next meeting. The committee would meet for the purpose of drafting a formal proposal to revise the charter and present its recommendation to the council, which, in turn, would forward the recommendation as a proposed ballot question to the Rhode Island secretary of state.

It is unclear if the town would need the state General Assembly to enact legislation enabling Jamestown to put a charter change on the ballot. Assuming that everything proceeds expeditiously, it looks like the question of a change in Jamestown’s voting procedures will go before the voters in November.

The members of the previous Charter Review Committee were Mike Schnack, the current Jamestown Town Council President; Dan Wright, the current chairman of the Committee on LNG Threat; Susan Little, a current Planning Commission member; Sav Rebecchi, a current School Committee member; David Long, a former council president; and Jerry McIntyre, who is also a former council president. Then-council president Julio DiGiando served as the charter committee liaison to the council.

In other business, the council agreed to submit for state consideration a priority list of 13 requests for Community Development Block Grant funding. The list, which was endorsed during an earlier meeting of the Affordable Housing Committee, is intended to support improved housing and employment opportunities for lower-income individuals while providing assistance to community facilities and services.

One such facility is identifi ed in Priority Number 5, which seeks a $10,000 furniture-and equipment grant to the East Bay Community Action Program in Newport. During the Affordable Housing Committee meeting held earlier on May 2, Town Planner Lisa Bryer explained that the Newport facility has provided many services to Jamestown residents over the years. The Number 1 priority list requests $75,000 to support Church Community Housing Corporation repairs at the Bayside Affordable Housing Development.

In his update on the search for a new Jamestown police chief, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said the search committee has selected nine individuals for interviews, all of who are Rhode Island residents.

Besides Keiser, the committee included former council president DiGiando; former council president Long; East Greenwich Town Manager Bill Sequino; and Charlestown Police Chief Jack Shippee. The committee will hold interviews with all nine candidates this week and select a list of finalists the following week.

Return to top