NARRAGANSETT—The debate about Town Manager Grady Miller’s job performance continued on Monday night as the Town Council passed a motion by a vote of three to two to direct the Town Solicitor Mark McSally to ‘review and report’ a $3,000 appropriation authorized by Miller to the Narrow River Preservation Association (NRPA). Miller has been scrutinized by Town Council members in recent weeks for allowing the donation to NRPA without the approval of the Town Council and separate from the special appropriations process.
The payment, made by Miller in December 2011 to assist in the non-profit organization’s water quality testing of Narrow River, was funded through the town’s Wastewater Enterprise Fund, an action which Town Council President Hagopian did not feel reflected correct judgment.
“I put on this agenda item when I became aware of this expenditure in January, which I found troubling,” said Hagopian at the March 19 meeting. “Previously, [the town] had contributed consistently to NRPA out of the Special Appropriations Budget, but we made a policy decision that only donations to human services would be made this year.”
“This donation came from the Professional Services account, which was also troubling,” she added. “The Wastewater Fund is an enterprise fund, with a very stringent list of rules about what can be paid from it, such as costs associated with maintaining our sewer system. I worry about what appears to be discriminatory practice against folks who went through the Special Appropriations Process.”
Miller was not present on Monday evening to defend his person further because of family emergency, but members of the public expressed their opinions– some agreeing with and some condemning the Town Council’s actions.
Others defended NRPA’s stance within the ordeal.
“As we lose these rivers, we are losing a very beautiful part of Narragansett and South Kingstown, and losing a part of life,” said Ted Wright. “For the $3,000, I don’t give a damn how it works, but as long as it is put to good use, it has to be done.”
“We are not taking care of what we have [at Narrow River],” he added. “You can’t walk away from these volunteers who do a job which would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. They save our livelihood in tourism and more. That [water quality] testing has paid for the sewers. Don’t screw this up, please.”
Hagopian emphasized that it was not the Town Council’s intention to discuss the merits of NRPA’s water quality testing program, which is viewed as separate and not pertinent to the process by which Miller approved the expenditure.
“The sole intent of this motion is to evaluate the information received by me and the Council, and to determine whether this expenditure was to be paid through the Wastewater Enterprise Fund, and whether it should have occurred with or without Town Council approval.”
“The judgment is such that [the $3,000 expenditure] is a good idea, but there are others who think otherwise,” she added. “It is our job to represent both viewpoints.”
Members of the public who attended the Town Council meeting expressed their concern and frustration regarding the strained relationship between Miller and the Town Council, and questioned whether Town Council members had the intention of firing Miller, a prospect which was feared at an executive session held last fall to discuss the Town Manager’s job performance.
“I think the facts as they seem to be laid out are quite clear, and as one who has spent a large part of my career tracking fraud transactions, this is not one of them,” said resident John Webb. “This is not about whether the $3,000 is a good investment or not, so what is the outcome that [the Town Council] is expecting? Frankly, I think you have a lot more important things to do than whatever this is, a witch-hunt or whatever.”
“The language utilized by the Town Council indicates a level of intent on the conduct of the Town Manager, and the current environment in Town Hall is toxic, perpetuated by accusations and assumptions,” said Carol Stuart. “The Town Council, elected by the people, should be functioning as a unit, but I see a lack of trust and communication that is unhealthy at a moment when Narragansett could be focused on larger issues and our future is at risk.”
Other audience members praised the oversight which the Town Council has displayed in questioning the $3,000 expenditure.
“What we are looking for is a financial moral compass,” said Stanley Wojciechowski. “This is not a river or preservation issue, and if you don’t worry about these pennies and dollars, we won’t prevent the financial disasters our government is seeing now.”
“I respect [those on the Town Council] who have tried to do this, and if something is deviating from the acceptable way we operate, then we have to fix it,” he added. “I don’t care how small it is. We’ve got to make it right.”
“I am proud of the citizens of Narragansett for standing up and giving their thoughts and ideas for how we need to function,” said Bob Trager.
“I am proud of the job the Town Council does and I think that with all of the problems we are having in this country, and they are huge, this is the important thing in my mind; That people participate in their local government.”
Although some did not disagree that scrutiny to town expenditures, especially in the current financial climate, should be applied, the manner in which the Town Council has criticized Miller’s conduct has surprised residents.
“I respect the Town Council and think it has done a good job, and Grady Miller has done a good job too,” said Ray Kagel. “The thing that appalls me is that this was done publicly when this could have been done in executive session. You need to put an end to this.”
The motion passed with approval from Hagopian and Council members Alison Trainor-Fleet and David Crook, and with nays from Councilman Christopher Wilkens and Councilwoman Susan Cicilline-Buonanno.