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To seemingly reverse the will of the people and give themselves an opportunity to extend their terms in office, the Westerly Town Council Monday night will vote on a resolution that calls for a special May election to revise the council’s length of terms.
Additionally, the resolution asks voters to allow a “former” councilperson to ask for an “exception” to the state’s revolving door regulation, which prohibits municipal elected officials from employment in the municipality in which they held office for a year after leaving elective office.
The resolution sets May 3 for a vote on the charter revisions, rather than waiting for the November general election. The May 3 timeframe would allow current councilors to run in November. Currently, all but one councilor would be term limited this year.
In two previous elections, voters approved two-year terms, with a limit of two terms (four consecutive years). The resolution calls for changing two-year terms to four years, and limiting councilors to serving no more than eight consecutive years.
“There’s a lot going on in Westerly,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause. “It would seem a little disingenuous to change the charter and take advantage of the charter change.”.
The May special election also troubles Marion.
“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.”
In a special election, in October 2019, Westerly voters rejected a $71 million school building bond, with just slightly more than 21 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
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.
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.