2011-05-19 / News

Council restores Charter Review Committee

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Town Council this week restored its Charter Review Committee for a review of voting procedures at Financial Town Meetings, even though there might be a limit to what the council can do in response to recommendations from the panel. The council met on May 16 to address a number of significant topics, but the committee discussions emerged as the most contentious.

Although the council passed a motion proposing to reconstitute the committee, the motion didn’t specify a charge, probably because it was understood that the panel was being restored for the sole purpose of reviewing and recommending changes in the voting options at Financial Town Meetings.

The step was taken in response to a petition from the Jamestown Taxpayers Association, which has asked the council to limit all FTM votes to paper ballots, which the association also refers to as “secret ballots.”

Currently, FTM votes are initially voice votes. If the moderator doesn’t discern a clear majority in a voice vote, he or she will ask for a show of hands or, alternatively, for people to vote by standing up. If the moderator still fails to discern a majority, he or she will request a paper ballot.

The association wants the voting limited to paper ballots because of the rampant confusion that dominated last year’s meeting. Its moderator, Jim Donnelly, was on hand for this week’s council meeting to assert that last year’s voting didn’t violate any of the protocols established by state law. In fact, Donnelly argued that the council doesn’t have the authority to change those protocols.

He added, however, that the council has the authority to abolish Financial Town Meetings (and presumably replace it with a standard election-day process), but the councilors haven’t indicated that they will ask the Charter Review Committee to evaluate such a step. It remains to be seen if the panel will limit its discussions solely to paper balloting.

Council President Mike Schnack will serve as the council’s liaison to the group. The other voting members will be Susan Little, Robert Ullrich, Julio DiGiando, David Long, Sav Rebecchi and Dan Wright.

Councilor Ellen Winsor questioned the wisdom of allowing any individuals who already serve on influential committees to join another important panel, but her concerns didn’t gain traction among the other councilors.

Although the committee’s first meeting date hasn’t been set, council member Bob Bowen argued that there wasn’t any rush because a recommendation to change the FTM procedures – assuming it’s permissible under state law – would go before the voters during this November’s special election instead of a midterm or general election.

Schanck replied that “it will be better that way because the people who vote [in lower-profi le elections] are the people who are really interested,” adding that “we need the question on the November ballot to change the procedures for the FTM in 2012.”

One of the association’s allegations about the last year’s meeting was that voters were turned away from the packed gymnasium at the Lawn Avenue School, an assertion that Canvassing Clerk Karen Montoya categorically denies. Most of the councilors said they regarded the allegation as “serious,” and Donnelly said that any suggestion that he allowed the Financial Town Meeting to proceed when there were voters being turned away from the gym was “offensive.”

Last year’s meeting was also marred with allegations that people were rushing from section to section in an attempt to vote twice during standing votes.

“The meeting lasted three hours and 15 minutes,” Donnelly said. “Just because a few people made a ruckus doesn’t mean [procedures have to be changed]. It’s insulting to [the councilors].”

In his lengthy presentation to the council, Donnelly reviewed some of the events at last year’s meeting. In his concluding comment to the council, Donnelly said, “You can look at the minutes of the meeting and see what happened instead of someone’s fantasy.”

Another potentially divisive topic on the agenda was the pending transition of the Jamestown’s Emergency Medical Services unit into the Fire Department, but the update from Town Administrator Bruce Keiser didn’t spark any particular concerns except for a question from Winsor, who asked why the future EMS director was selected from the transition team instead of public solicitation.

Keiser responded that Assistant Fire Chief Howie Tighe has been selected as deputy fire chief for EMS because “he is the most highly qualified person on the island for this position. When the JEMS commander and I discussed the potential merger he indicated to me that Howie was the only person who was appropriate [to lead the unit]. The confi dence level in him is very high, and without that confidence, it would be much more difficult for JEMS personnel to come over to the Fire Department. [Police] Chief Tighe had zero influence on the decision.”

Thomas Tighe, the police chief, is Howie Tighe’s father and also serves on the transition team.

Councilor Bill Murphy added that the Fire Department does not select deputy fire chiefs through public solicitations, and Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero pointed out that “Chief [Jim] Bryer selects his deputy chiefs and Howie’s sole job will be [EMS].

“The whole reason this [transition] is going on,” Ruggiero continued, “is under-performance issues and liability concerns, and trying to get the stakeholders together to come up with a solution. There is no nepotism involved, and only the council can approve the re-organization, which has not [yet] been agreed upon. We don’t know how the technicians will be monitored, although we know that Newport Hospital will be involved, and so will other collaborating physicians. You’ll have all this [before the council] on June 20, and you will see that the plan is very different from the service organization in place right now. Whatever the rumors are, these are the facts.”

In other news, the council learned from Keiser that, prior to the June 20 meeting, the councilors will be receive a memo listing the pros and cons of a standing offer from Sav Rebecchi to provide video-recording services, along with links for public access to the videos, for Town Council meetings. Rebecchi, who posts local videos on his Jamestown Record Web site, has offered the service free of charge. Otherwise, the town has two bids for video hardware and installation: $21,569 and $28,171. Software bids range from $3,200 to $6,100 annually with first-year start-up expenses being $2,000 to $3,200.

Also, the council learned from Keiser that the Federal Aviation Administration has approved the re-application for a wind turbine at Taylor Point. The maximum tower height that the FAA will allow at the site is 363 feet above ground level, which, according to Keiser, would allow for a wind turbine capable of generating 1.65 megawatts of electricity.

Keiser also told the council that the device to measure wind speed at the Taylor Point site selected for a turbine would be switched on as of May 17, although there’s still no word from National Grid about the costs to upgrade the capacity of Jamestown’s electrical grid.

The council also agreed to consider a Harbor Management Ordinance amendment to prohibit anchorage and moorings in ecologically sensitive harbors separately from the full package of proposed revisions to the ordinance. The purpose of the request from Harbor Management Commission member Ed McGuirl is getting the amendment adopted as early as possible before boats start anchoring in those areas.

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