On November 6th, North Kingstown voters will decide on four amendments to the town charter. As a member of this year’s charter revision commission, let me explain the rationale for these changes.
The first question deals with limiting the terms of appointed members of boards, commissions and committees to 12 consecutive years, after which the citizen would have to take two years off before being reappointed. However, if the person has special qualifications the town council may reappoint him or her by unanimous vote. For example, this might apply to the planning board or audit committee.
The charter revision commission felt that some members of appointed bodies are simply reappointed automatically and that getting other citizens involved in the work of boards, commissions and committees is a good thing. It also would prevent one or two long-serving members from dominating a body.
Second, a majority of the town council agreed with a minority report of the charter revision commission from me that “the advice and consent of a majority of the town council” should be required “for all town manager appointments of department heads including any employee who reports directly” to him or her.
In no way is this question directed at the current town manager nor is it a reflection on his performance in that capacity.
This is a controversial question with some arguing that “politics” might be injected into the town hiring process. However, right now a manager has unbridled authority to hire and fire non-bargaining unit town employees.
In fact, Section 503 of the present charter specifically prohibits the council or any of its members from directing or requesting “the appointment of any person to or his/her removal from office by the manager or by any of his/her subordinates”. This section also provides that “The council or any of its members shall not…in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees in the administrative service of the town.”
In other words, a council member who tries to influence the hiring of a town employee would be in violation of the charter and could be removed from office.
Conceivably, a town manager could terminate every department head and direct report and replace them with his or her cronies. Council president Liz Dolan argued that if this were to happen the council could terminate the manger. This is true but as the charter is presently worded it is within the authority of the manager to take such action and the town might very well end up paying him or her off or face a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Under the council-manager form of government, council members are the elected representatives of the citizens to whom the town manager reports. They should have full oversight of the actions of a town manager.
The third question is also controversial. It asks whether the school committee should be reduced to five members, the same number as the council.
One of this year’s candidates for the school committee argued that, because the school budget is about 2/3rds of the total budget, the committee needs seven members. Following that logic, the town council should be reduced from five to three members.
Another argument is that the school committee has so much work to do, and so many subcommittees, it needs seven members. In the 1950s, Professor C. Northcote Parkinson published a “law” that now bears his name. Simply stated, Parkinson’s Law says “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” There are probably only three subcommittees that are really needed: budget, union negotiations and policy. Everything else is superfluous.
Let me be clear that this amendment is not directed toward any present school committee member. It would follow that by reducing the committee to five members, the amount of discussion would be reduced by about 30%. This would expedite committee meetings.
If passed, this amendment would mean that in 2016 two seats on the committee would be filled rather than four.
Finally, voters are being asked to do some dusting and cleaning of Section 1010 of the charter which deals with budget referenda. During the last charter referendum, voters approved a change that dealt with the number of signatures required on a petition for a budget referendum. The intent of the charter revision commission and the voters that year was that three-percent of the number of qualified electors certified for the previous general election would be required on such a petition. However, the wording in Section 1010 was incorrectly recorded as “3 percent of the qualified electors who voted in the previous general election.”
Members of the previous charter revision commission stated that the intent was to establish a higher bar for budget referendum petitions.
I urge North Kingstown voters to vote “yes” to all four questions.
Finally, am I the only one who thinks it is absurd that 14 candidates, including three incumbents, are vying for the five at-large seats on the North Kingstown Town Council? This means that most likely a majority of the members of the next council will have received only a tiny fraction of the total votes cast.
Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. He served for six years on North Kingstown’s Audit Committee and was its chairman for the last two. His opinions are his own.