EAST GREENWICH- Every two years in February, the East Greenwich Town Council discusses during its meetings what changes they want to make to the council’s rules and regulations.
The rules are essentially a guide to help make sure things go smoothly when it comes to town council business.
After discussing possible rules changes during previous meetings, it was back on the agenda again for the March 8 East Greenwich Town Council meeting.
One of the possible changes that was discussed was in regards to town councilors contacting department heads directly.
Currently the rule states, “members of the Council may not contact Department Heads directly, but may request a meeting through the Town Manager. 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.”
This was raised by East Greenwich Town Council President Mark Schwager, who said that he had questions about it.
“That always seemed to me to be a little bit restrictive,”Schwager said.
Town Manager Andy Nota, explained that when it comes to simple questions he doesn’t see any problems with it. The main reason for the rule he explained is that it doesn’t create a situation where an individual council member is putting a department head in uncomfortable situations, or using up staff resources for their particular interest that may not align with the goals of the council.
“Should they at any time be uncomfortable about the amount of time or the line of questions that a council member is asking them they would consult with me and I would follow up with that council member,” Nota said.
Schwager suggested to Teitz that maybe they could loosen up the restrictions for communications with department heads.
Town Councilor Renu Englehart explained that she disagrees and said that she feels that it is a professional courtesy to contact the town manager if a town councilor is contacting a department head.
“I think it’s a common courtesy, I think it’s a good practice,” Englehart said.
East Greenwich Town Council Vice President Michael Donegan said that he agreed with Englehart. He explained that any time he contacts a department head he always contacts Nota first and discusses it with him first.
“Its not much of a hassle to call Andy and tell him ahead of time because I do it,” Donegan said.
Donegan explained that his concern is that the way someone asks questions or the questions they ask may make a department feel uncomfortable and or make them feel that the councilor may be signaling the way they want the result to go.
East Greenwich Town Councilor Michael Zarrella explained that he thinks that having that policy makes it an inconvenience, however he understands the concern about a councilor going rogue or trying to influence a decision by a staff member.
“I understand the point that you don’t want someone going rogue and trying to influence somebody,” Zarrella said.
One of the concerns that was brought up by Zarrella about the restrictions of communications between department heads and council members is that there could be times when department heads have concerns about the town manager and he feels that they wouldn’t be able to communicate to the council members about it.
“You might have a town manager that goes rogue,” he said. “I’m not trying to be funny its happened before and it could happen again,” he went onto say with the rules in place they wouldn’t be able to find out what is going on.
“I don’t like barriers. I think everything should be open,” he said, noting that council members shouldn’t be influencing staff members.
Nota said that no matter what the final decision is from the council about the rule, they will be able to make it work.
“I think we’re supportive to some degree with everything that each person is saying so wherever you fall on this issue I think we will be able to live with whatever the determination is,” Nota said.
The council ultimately agreed to have Teitz look at the comments made during the meeting and come back with new proposed changes at a future meeting for the council’s consideration.
One notable proposed rule that was added by Teitz was in regards to recusals. Currently there is no official rule regarding recusals.
The proposed rule would clarify what a town councilor is expected to do when faced with a conflict of interest.
“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 proposed rule stated. “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 proposed rule change that was brought up during the meeting was in regards to boards, commissions, and advisory boards.
Teitz explained 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 proposed 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 rule change 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.”
One of the examples that Teitz pointed to was when they were seeking input from waterfront business owners about the noise. 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 is slated for Monday, March 22 at 7 p.m.