Narragansett Town Council deems resident petition valid during Monday meeting
NARRAGANSETT – With two abstentions from the vote, the Narragansett Town Council on Monday deemed a resident-submitted petition calling for a return to partisan elections valid. The goal, according to petitioner and Democratic Town Committee Chair Winters Hames, is to revert Narragansett to revealing a candidate’s political affiliation on election ballots for Narragansett Town Council and Narragansett School Committee. The town has engaged in nonpartisan elections since 1992, with no candidates’ political affiliations being specified on the ballot after a resident-submitted petition calling for such was approved by a town referendum in 1988.
“I have done this for several reasons,” said Hames on the decision to petition the law. “First is I believe that in these times, everyone deserves to know who they are voting for and what they stand for. For many years, the Republican candidates, with the exception of [town councilor] Patrick Murray, refused to identify themselves as Republican candidates. It is not on their lawn signs or any of the literature that they disseminate.”
Voter initiative is a mechanism in Narragansett’s Town Charter that provides the electorate with the same powers of the town council. Via initiative and subsequent petition, residents can create or rescind ordinances, draft resolutions and complete other government proposals that are then put to the public via referendum if deemed legally sound.
The Narragansett Town Council consists of five members. As noted, current councilor Patrick Murray is a registered Republican. Councilor Jesse Pugh is a registered Democrat, while council president Matthew Mannix, council president pro tem Jill Lawler and councilor Richard Lema are registered as Independent. These political affiliations, however, never appeared on the ballot where residents voted for town council positions.
While the Narragansett Town Council was only voting strictly on the legality of the proposed change, which was viewed by Narragansett Town Solicitor Mark Davis as legal, some councilors still voiced disapproval of the ballot change.
“The nonpartisan ballot that was put forward in the late eighties was kind of seen as a reform for the town,” said Mannix. “It’s something that encourages a more informed electorate. People have to go out, they have to look at the issues, positions, backgrounds of the individual candidates. It encourages people to be more engaged with the election instead of simply checking off a list of Democrats or Republicans. This is really a significant step backward.”
Mannix also brought up data from the National League of Cities which he said showed 22 of the nation’s 30 largest cities practice nonpartisan elections.
Several residents stated opposition to Hames’ proposal.
“I, myself, am against the labeling of any candidates as Republican or Democrats,” said resident Dr. Albert Alba. “I think we should judge the person and what they stand for, and I don’t think we should stereotype one person as Democrat, Republican, even Independent, because we don’t know what position one might have in local politics. I think that’s what it comes down to–what does one stand for to make Narragansett the best? If someone if just going to vote Republican because they want to vote Republican, and they’re not going to look into the issues, a label can mask someone. A label can mask a Democratic individual, a label can mask a Republican or Independent, and I don’t think we need that at the local level.”
Ultimately, the motion determining the validity and legality of Hames’ petition was approved 3-0, with councilors Mannix, Murray and Pugh in favor and councilors Lawler and Lema abstaining. Hames’ and supporters of the initiative will now collect signatures on the petition and, if deemed valid by the town’s board of canvassers, the town council can either act directly to address the substance of what’s being called for by the petition or the question will go to the public on the 2020 ballot.