NARRAGANSETT – The town council recently approved three voter initiative petitions bearing a number of resident signatures that will now appear as referenda on the November ballot. The initiatives concern policy around sale of town property, the addition of a voter recall mechanism and the fate of the controversial public library project in the Pier Marketplace.
Voter initiative, a process outlined in Narragansett law, allows the electorate the same legislative powers of the town council. When an initiative is introduced, it first must be accepted as valid by the council, receive a required number of signatures equal to 12 percent of the total voters in the previous election and then again be approved by council vote to appear on the ballot of the next election.
The town council, in both of its votes on an initiative, is not addressing the content of the proposal being put forward in a political context, but rather determining if the petition violates state or federal law. The second council vote, which the body undertook Monday night in a virtual meeting, merely addresses whether or not a given petition has completed all of the necessary steps to appear on the ballot for the electorate to decide on. Accordingly, while town councilors may disagree with a petition’s content, they must approve the initiative if it meets all the requirements.
“Tonight, before you is really a formality to put those [initiatives on the ballot],” Narragansett Town Solicitor Mark Davis explained to the council and public Monday. “They have all the requirements and as such should be placed on the ballot in November.”
The first initiative considered by the council, if approved in November, would amend the Town Charter to create legislation that would prevent the town from selling property without a referendum at the next scheduled election. The petition, submitted to the town last year by 2020 town council candidate and Democratic Town Committee Chair Win Hames, was certified by the council in April 2019 and received over 1,200 signatures, which the board of canvassers validated in September 2019. 856 signatures were required to move the petition forward.
While not explicitly mentioning the town’s library project in the pier, the proposal from Hames is evocative of a local controversy that has dominated this town council’s term. After the 2016 election saw 68 percent of Narragansett voters approve a $5.8 million bond referendum for a new public library, the previous town council, in the month before the 2018 election, purchased the approximate 18,500-square-foot former Belmont Marketplace/IGA building in the Pier Marketplace, along with the approximate 3,000-square-foot adjoined building currently occupied by Pier Liquors and a number of parking spaces from Gilbane, Inc. for $2.8 million. However, a majority elected to the council in 2018 consisting of council president Matthew Mannix, president pro tem Jill Lawler and councilor Richard Lema has opposed the project, citing financial and logistical concerns with the library buildout in the location, as well as pointing to the fact that the 2016 ballot question did not specify the former Belmont building as the site for the new library. The council majority has since effectively halted the project while attempting and failing to find a buyer for the property.
On Monday, Lema took issue with Hames’ proposal, noting the town regularly sells off vehicles and other minor items and requiring a vote at a regularly scheduled election on such matters would be costly to the town and delay revenue. Davis, while again mentioning the council must approve the initiative since it met all requirements, seconded the contention.
“I think we had these discussions when the voter initiative first came up, that ‘property’ was broad,” he said. “The intent may have been ‘real property.’”
Town councilor Jesse Pugh said the initiative represented the “messiness of democracy.” Councilor Patrick Murray opposed the idea, stating the law should have been changed to require a super majority on the council in order to sell town-owned property rather than a referendum. Council president pro tem Jill Lawler and council president Matthew Mannix also did not support the content of the petition.
“I think this ties the hands of the town council to make decisions on behalf of the voters,” said Mannix. “I don’t think it remedies a lot of people’s concern about what happened with the library, in fact, it’s prospective, it doesn’t apply to the IGA/Belmont building at all.”
Despite the conflicting views on the initiative’s contents, the council unanimously approved the petition and it will appear on the November ballot.
The second initiative, also submitted by Hames, would amend the Town Charter to add a voter recall provision. Specifically, the proposed legislation, if approved in November, would allow recall of an elected official who has held office for at least six months by petition. The petition must garner resident signatures equal to 25 percent of the electors who voted in the last general election. If it does, the town council will then schedule a special election. Hames submitted the petition in February of last year. It was deemed valid by the council in March 2019 and its signatures, over 1,200, were certified by the board of canvassers in August 2019.
Lema, again, spoke out against the initiative.
“This is just a matter of, if you don’t like who got elected, and you get enough signatures, you can step into this and just keep it going, try to tie things up,” he said.
Councilors Pugh and Murray supported the idea, with Pugh noting that if an elected official campaigned on a certain platform or issue and then did not act in accordance with that rhetoric, the recall provision would allow a fix. Murray agreed. Lawler also opposed the move.
Ultimately, Hames’ second petition proposing a voter recall mechanism be added to the Town Charter was unanimously approved by the council and will appear on the November ballot.
The third petition, submitted by president of the previous town council Susan Cicilline Buonanno, a staunch supporter of the library project, would amend Chapter 42 of the Narragansett Code of Ordinances to include language that the purchased space in the Pier Marketplace be used for a new public library and would limit the use of up to $5.8 million in bonds for such purposes. Essentially, it puts the matter of a new town library again up for a public vote, this time with a specific location.
“We just had a conversation about how the original bond question did not specify the IGA building,” said Pugh. “And that’s why three members of the council think that they do not need to move the library to the IGA building because it wasn’t specified. So now we have an initiative that asks the voters specifically where do you want to have the library? Do you want to use the bond for the IGA building? Put it back up to the voters, let them vote, and it’s clear, so we don’t have to have this argument again for another two years.”
“You can’t argue after the results of this one,” he added.
The initiative was submitted to the council in March of 2019 by Cicilline Buonanno, and the council approved it in April of last year. It garnered over 1,300 resident signatures, which were validated by the board of canvassers in September 2019.
Again, the Narragansett Town Council unanimously approved the petition for the November ballot.