COVENTRY — The Coventry Town Council this week approved a number of proposed questions to be placed on the November ballot for amendments to the town charter, including one clarifying the process for reappointing the acting town manager and another that would require public comment be included at town council meetings.
After the town council rejected all of the charter review committee’s proposed ballot questions during a meeting last month, the committee reconvened to consider the feedback it received. Kimberly Shockley, chair of the committee, came back Monday before the council to present revised versions of the questions that were rejected initially.
One question, approved unanimously by councilors Monday, would permit the reappointment of an acting town manager for six months at a time, as long as the town council is actively searching for a new manager “either directly, through a duly-constituted subcommittee or through the engagement of the contracted service of a recruiter.”
While council president Kerry McGee argued that the council is currently following that procedure, Shockley pointed out that it’s not specifically outlined in the charter.
Councilor Ann Dickson added that, since the council has in the past experienced confusion around reappointing Ed Warzycha to the interim town manager position, it would be a good idea to clarify the process.
Another proposed ballot question approved by the council Monday would require public comment periods be included during all town council meetings, except those convened solely for the purpose of executive session.
“We want to make sure that, while public comment currently is on every agenda, it will continue to be,” Shockley said of the charter review committee’s proposed amendment.
Under the Open Meetings Act, public comment is not required to be included during public meetings, explained David D'Agostino, the attorney who's been working with the charter review committee. The law, he said, only gives members of the public the right to be present for public meetings.
Recalling recent town councils that opted not to include public comment on their agendas, councilor Gary Cote said taxpayers appreciate having the opportunity to speak during meetings.
“I don’t support it before every vote that the council takes,” Cote said, alluding to the charter review committee’s initial recommendation, “but I absolutely support public comment at every council meeting. I think the public should have a voice.”
Councilors voted 3-1 to add the question to the November ballot, with McGee as the sole dissenter.
Gregory Laboissonniere, council vice president, was absent from Monday's meeting.
Councilors rejected a proposal to put a similar question on the ballot to require public comment periods be included on the agendas of other public boards and commissions, however, with Cote and McGee opposing it.
Councilors on Monday rejected several other proposed ballot questions, as well.
A proposal to establish term limits for town councilors was rejected, with McGee and Cote opposing and Dickson and councilor Debra Bacon voting in favor. The question would have asked voters to weigh in on whether or not councilors who have served two consecutive terms should be ineligible to serve again for another four years.
A similar question, which called for implementing term limits for school committee members, was also rejected, with Bacon and Dickson both voting for it.
Part of the town council’s reason for rejecting that proposal initially was that it wanted to get input from the school committee. During a subsequent school committee meeting, members actually spoke favorably of the proposed charter amendment.
“I understand their point,” McGee said Monday. “But, like we had stated [when the charter review committee first presented its proposals], it’s so difficult to find people to run for office.”
McGee, Dickson and Bacon each also on Monday presented ballot questions to be considered.
McGee’s proposal to add a question to the ballot to eliminate both the annual Financial Town Meeting and the all-day budget referendum got no support from his fellow councilors.
The impetus behind proposing the amendment, McGee said, was the apparent lack of interest by taxpayers in participating in the annual budget vote.
“I, along with other members of the council, were disappointed with the low voter turnout with our all-day referendum,” McGee said, noting that the referendum cost the town some $25,000.
Just 2,034 residents — around 8 percent of Coventry’s eligible voters — turned out last month to cast their votes for the town’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget.
“Ninety-two percent of our voters just didn’t care what happened with our budget,” McGee said, adding that “a lot of hard work and time” went into presenting voters with a budget that wouldn’t raise the tax rate.
McGee argued that the town will never achieve good financial standing as long as special interest groups are able to control the outcome of budget votes.
“I have been listening to our future council members and potential members grandstanding and accusing me of trying to take away voters’ rights,” he continued. “It’s quite the opposite — the voters obviously do not exercise their right.”
McGee said it should be up to Coventry's elected officials, who he added "are well versed on the budget,” to make budget decisions, and interested residents could give input during hearings and workshops.
Coventry is one of 17 Rhode Island municipalities where the budget is adopted through either a referendum or Financial Town Meeting. Other towns leave the decision in the hands of elected officials.
“If you do not like what your elected officials put forward for your budget, then vote them out of office,” McGee said.
Cote disagreed. Though he, too, was frustrated by last month’s low voter turnout, he said he could never “in good conscience” hinder taxpayers’ ability to voice their opinions on the municipal budget or their ability to vote on that budget.
Bacon echoed that, adding that such a drastic charter change should be presented for a public hearing.
Another motion Monday — which also died after receiving no second — would also have eliminated the annual Financial Town Meeting, but would have kept the all-day budget referendum.
Since Coventry voters in 2018 approved moving to an all-day referendum method of adopting the annual budget, Dickson, who proposed the ballot question, argued that the Financial Town Meeting has lost much of its purpose.
With the meeting held only two days prior to the referendum, and after the town council has already approved the budget that will be presented to voters, Dickson said, there has been very low attendance during the Financial Town Meeting. And residents who do attend are no longer able to suggest budget changes.
“I don’t think that it is serving a useful purpose in its present form,” Dickson said of the meeting.
In its place, Dickson recommended amending the charter to let residents petition for budget changes after the town council has taken its preliminary budget vote. The council, in turn, would be able to either accept or reject those suggestions in the final budget that would go before voters at the referendum.
“It does provide an opportunity for the townspeople, in a very manageable way, to let their views be known,” Dickson said, adding that each petition would need at least 50 voter signatures to be considered.
North Kingstown follows a similar practice for adopting its annual budget, allowing voters to submit petitions to make changes to the town council’s proposed budget.
Bacon argued, on the other hand, that the amendment could give too much power to special interest groups. She said it would be too time consuming for the average resident to collect dozens of signatures on a petition.
Dickson, whose proposal also called for separate public hearings to take place for the school and municipal budgets before the council votes on a preliminary budget, replied that all residents would have the chance to speak up during those hearings.
Another ballot question proposed by Bacon, which would have required that a special Financial Town Meeting be held within 60 days of a budget being rejected, received no council support.
The council did , however, vote 3-1 to approve adding a separate ballot question proposed by Bacon that, if approved by voters, will amend the charter to clarify the process of appointing a charter review committee.
McGee opposed adding the ballot question.