Members reach compromise on contacting department heads

 EAST GREENWICH- During its last few meetings, the East Greenwich Town Council has discussed possible rule changes. The rule changes for the Town Council are reviewed following each Town Council election. 

One rule change that has been a point of contention during previous meetings has been in regards to individual council members contacting different department heads.

Going into the March 22 meeting the proposed change on that the table stated, “Individual Members of the Council may contact Department Heads directly, but shall simultaneously (if in writing) and immediately thereafter (if not in writing) inform the Town Manager of the contact and the substance of any such contact. Any contact shall be for informational purposes only and Council members shall not provide direction or give orders to any Department Head or to any employee of the Town.”

East Greenwich Town Councilor Renu Englehart, who said she does everything through email and “cc’s” the Town Manager on emails to employees already, felt it was a good rule. 

“I like the intent of it. Like I said before I think its common courtesy to notify the Town Manager that you’re having a discussion,” she added. 

The most vocal critic of the proposed rule change was Michael Zarrella, who explained that he thought they were creating too many rules for simple questions and conversations.

“I just think this is a bunch of red tape. It makes things more complicated,” Zarrella said. 

Like other members of the council, however, Zarrella agreed that no member of the council should be using their influence to order any employees to do anything, including the town manager. This issue was addressed through one of the new rules that was approved.

“Individual members of the Council may contact the Town Manager directly. However, individual Council members shall not give orders to the Town Manager, nor shall the Town Manager undertake substantial projects nor allocate significant Town resources other than upon direction of a majority vote of the Town Council at a meeting of the Town Council,” the rule states. 

East Greenwich Town Council Vice President Michael Donegan, who says that he always informs the town manager ahead of time before asking employees questions, says that he doesn’t think there’s an issue with informing the Town Manager of contact with other departments. 

“I haven’t found that to be a problem,” Donegan explained.

Ultimately Donegan made a proposed amendment to the rule change which was approved by the council 5-0.

“Individual members of the council may contact department heads directly after informing the Town Manager of the intended contact and the substance of any such contact. Any contact shall be for informational purposes only and Council members shall not provide direction or give orders to any Department Head or to any employee of the Town,” the new rule states. 

Zarrella said following the vote he was glad they were able to come to a consensus on the issue. 

“It’s a compromise from where we both were originally,” Zarrella said. 

One notable rule that was added and approved during the meeting  was in regards to recusals. Currently there is no official rule regarding recusals. 

The rule now clarifies  what a town councilor is expected to do when faced with a conflict of interest. Previously there were no specific guidelines for this. 

“Pursuant to RIGL §36-14-6, when a member of the Town Council must refrain from participating in discussion and/or voting on a particular matter because of a conflict of interest, as defined by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission pursuant to Title 36, Chapter 14 of the General Laws of Rhode Island, that member shall complete a Statement of Conflict of Interest (also known as a “Recusal Form”) which will be filed as part of the record of the meeting. Said form shall be kept on file in the Office of the Town Clerk, and a copy shall be forwarded to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission,” the rule states. “The recused member shall immediately leave the table and sit at the back of the Council Chamber or leave the room entirely, or if the meeting is being conducting virtually, the recused member shall have his or her microphone and camera turned off for the duration of the consideration of the item.”

Another  rule change that was approved during the meeting was in regards to boards, commissions, and advisory boards. 

East Greenwich Town Solicitor Andy Teitz explained during the last meeting that members of any town board need to be a resident of East Greenwich, however, if the board is an advisory board there is an exception. 

“The reason why this can be an issue and I decided that we should put it right in is the fact that the charter requires that every member be a qualified elector of the town and a resident actually living in the town,”

The  changes to the rule, explains what the differences are. 

“A group formed and tasked by the Town Council with a specific, limited purpose, and from which the Council seeks advice or requests a report, for further action by the Council. Pursuant to C-122, the members shall be appointed by the Town Council, and shall also be subject to C-15, C-16, and C-17, including the requirement that every member be a qualified elector of the Town and a resident actually living in the Town,” the new rule states. “An advisory board or commission shall not include any group assembled and/or appointed by the Town Manager to advise the Town Manager on any specific purpose, and the members of such group advising the Town Manager shall not be subject to the aforementioned Charter provisions.”

Teitz pointed to a time when the council was seeking input from waterfront business owners about the noise as an example. He explained that since they were not all residents of East Greenwich, they were restricted from serving on a town council board. 

The next East Greenwich Town Council meeting slated for April 13 at 7 p.m.

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