Term limits, four-year terms for city councilors, a strong mayor system – all items under consideration by the Newport Charter Commission, as it prepares to present its recommended charter revisions to the City Council next month.
The commission has been meeting since last December, with considerable input from the public, reviewing the charter, provision by provision. In April, the commission has meetings scheduled weekly as it finalizes its report to the City Council.
When the Charter Commission presents its recommendations to the City Council, the Council will then decide which items, if any, to present to voters in November.
A review of posted Charter Commission minutes indicates that among the items discussed, either from public input or just commission review, include significant changes in how local government operates. That does not mean that any of those proposals reach the Council as recommendations, or, if they do that the council puts them on the November ballot.
One item that has already drawn a response from Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, is the suggestion of changing the form of government from one in which the chief executive is the city manager to one in which an elected mayor is the chief executive.
Napolitano does not believe the city should revert to a mayoral form of government. In a videocast last week on What’sUpNewp, Napolitano said that Newport is too complex to consider a change. Currently, the City Council elects the mayor, who ostensibly fills the role of a council president, leaving administrative work to the City Manager.
She did not comment on other proposals, including a suggestion of four-year staggered terms and a limit of two consecutive terms. Both items are not only under consideration in Newport, but in other communities as well, including Westerly.
Westerly was scheduled to have a special election on May 3 to consider a change from two-year terms, with a two-term limit (voted on by voters twice) to four-year staggered terms, with a two-term limit. All but one of the members of the current Westerly council are term-limited this year.
There was considerable skepticism within the community about the move to a May 3 election, since if approved it would have allowed the current term-limited council members to run again in the fall. Councilors who advocated the May 3 vote said they worried that by electing a virtually new council, the town would lose important institutional knowledge and “continuity.”
By deferring the vote to November, the Westerly, Councilman Christopher Duhamel said it would save taxpayers a few thousand dollars. The state informed the town that it would be required to open all precincts for the special election. The council had only planned to open two or three at a cost of no more than $8,000. Opening all precincts, Duhamel said, would basically double the cost.
The council now plans to put the measure on the November ballot, thus eliminating the option for current term-limited councilors to run for re-election in November.
Meanwhile, the Newport Charter Commission apparently is suggesting some clarity in wording throughout the charter, and, in response to gas crisis a few years ago and the pandemic, changes in the emergency powers provision. Several other areas have been discussed, including the possibility of eliminating wards in the city. Currently, three of the seven council members are elected to represent wards.
The Charter Commission’s next meeting is April 7 at 4:30 p.m.