As expected, the Westerly Town Council last night (Monday) approved sending a series of charter revisions to voters in a May special election, changes that would double the length of council terms, and allow an unnamed councilor to seek the Ethics Commission’s permission to sidestep the state’s revolving door legislation.
If voters approve the charter changes it will allow current council members to run again for a four-year term. Currently only one of the seven council members is not term limited this year. The town charter limits council members to two two-year terms. The proposed change would double terms to four years, setting term limits at eight consecutive years,
Voters twice before voted to keep terms at two years, with a two-term limit.
The vote last night was four to two, with Councilors Suzanne Giorno, Karen Cioffi, Chris Duhamel, and Council President Sharon Ahern voting in favor, Councilors Phil Overton and Caswell Cooke voted against. Councilman Brian McCuin was not present.
I have “a lot of faith in our voters,” Giorno said during the meeting. “Let them decide.”
However, voter turnout in special elections in Westerly has historically been quite low. According to the state Board of Elections:
- May 4, 2021, only 991 voters turned out to vote on $2 million school and $11 million infrastructure bonds. Total Registered voters – 19,216. Turnout – about 5 percent.
- Oct. 10, 2019, only 3,924 voters turned out to vote on a $71.4 million school bond. Total registered voters – 18,595. Turnout – 21 percent.
- Nov. 13, 2017, only 513 voted on a $1.6 million school bond. Total registered voters – 17,975. Turnout – 2.9 percent.
- Nov. 10, 2015, just 442 voters turned out to weigh in on charter questions. Total registered voters – 17,241. Turnout – 2.5 percent.
- April 4, 2014. Only 1,076 individuals voted. Total registered voters – 17,241. Turnout – 6 percent.
For general elections, the turnout has been much more robust, especially in presidential election years.
- 2020, a presidential election, brought out nearly 13,000 Westerly voters.
- 2018 turnout was slightly more than 9,000.
- 2016, a presidential election year – more than 11,000 Westerly residents voted.
- 2014 turnout was about 7,500.
- 2012, another presidential election year, turnout topped 10,500.
- 2010 turnout was about 7,400.
The resolution sets May 3 for the special election, a timeframe that would allow current councilors to run in November. Candidates do not have to file their declaration of candidacy until June 27-29, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
“It would seem a little disingenuous to change the charter and take advantage of the charter change,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause.
“Having a special election in May is not a good idea,” he said. “Special elections have extremely low turnouts and tend to distort the electorate. All the empirical research says having local elections at the same time you have national elections is a better thing. More people participate. That just sounds like not such a great idea … On year elections are better for democracy.”
Term limits first surfaced a few years ago as part of more than 30 proposed charter revisions. Voters supported term limits (to two terms) but did not support extending the length of terms.
Members of the council have been concerned that with all but one councilor term limited it would leave the council without “institutional knowledge.” The charter revision, while proposing four-year terms, would also create staggered terms, so not all terms would expire at the same time.
On the issue of asking approval to seek an exception to the revolving door regulation, the council has not identified the individual for whom they are asking the exception, although Councilman Duhamel said the charter change was requested by Councilwoman Karen Cioffi, who at one time was the town’s Director of Human Resources, a position that’s currently vacant.
A year ago, the ethics commission ruled against a Little Compton School Committee member, a nurse, who wanted to accept a paid position helping the schools with Covid testing and vaccinations. The Ethics Commission said the individual could not accept a paid position but could do the work as a volunteer.
Here’s some guidance that the Ethic Commission includes on its website:
- The Purpose of the Revolving Door Provisions
- In general, the purpose of the revolving door provisions is to prevent government employees and public officials from unfairly profiting from or otherwise trading upon the contacts, associations, and special knowledge that they acquired during their tenure as public servants.
- Municipal Elected Officials and All School Committee Members – Municipal Employment
- No municipal elected official or municipal school committee member, whether elected or appointed, while holding office and for a period of one year after leaving municipal office, shall seek or accept employment with any municipal agency in the municipality in which the official serves, other than employment which was held at the time of the official’s election or appointment.