Newport This Week on August 27, 2020 By James Merolla
Two one-hour virtual forums took place on Aug. 19 and Aug. 20 among the 12 At Large candidates for Newport City Council. Jill Kassis, of the League of Women Voters and WADK’s Bruce Newbury served as moderators.
The forums are a collaboration among the Alliance for a Livable Newport, East Bay TV, the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters Newport County, Newport Buzz, Newport This Week and WADK radio.
On Aug. 19, the six candidates included incumbents Mayor Jamie Bova, Jeanne-Marie Napolitano and Justin McLaughlin, and challengers Meagan Landry, Derek Grinkin and Bill Kimes.
Grinkin owns and operates a property management business in Newport and is a football coach at Salve Regina University. Kimes is a special education teacher at Rogers High and a member of the School Building Committee. Landry has worked at Saccucci Honda in Middletown for eight years and previously worked at the Jane Pickens Theater.
On Aug.20, incumbents Lynn Ceglie and Susan Taylor were joined by challengers Beth Cullen, Olga Enger, Elizabeth Fuerte and Kevin Michaud.
Cullen is a past president of the Point Association and a longtime advocate for education reform. Enger owns Studio Newport and is also a longtime freelance writer. Fuerte serves on the Planning Board and is a community organizer for the Newport Health Equity Zone. Michaud has worked at T.F. Green Airport in the public safety department since 2004, and is an assistant manager of Easton’s Beach.
The candidates were first asked to describe their vision for the North End. Grinkin said he saw more opportunity, open space and industrial offerings, along with additional middle-income housing. McLaughlin, citing how complex the North End is with many different entities, said a “framework” has to be developed, with zoning in place, before the city can move forward.
Kimes said consultant work currently being done “excited” him with drawings denoting a potential waterway opening, green space, stormwater planning, a library and a basketball court. Landry said “open land is very important,” adding the Naval Hospital land should be turned into “some sort of park,” with more things for children to do.
Bova said the North End urban plan must be completed first with guidance from residents. “I want to make sure we are developing it with mixed use,” she said.
Napolitano, noting that Sheffield School had become Innovate Newport, lauded mixed-use with retail planning.
Fuerte said that she wants to see that area be “completely” part of the city, so that it is not cut off by the Newport Bridge.
Michaud called it an “eyesore,” and said, “anything would be an improvement up there.” He said if the planning process plays out, “We’ll be better off.”
Enger said the council “had to be very careful to keep the North End special.” Taylor said that she wanted it to be “a vibrant location for businesses,” and that better broadband was needed in the area.
Ceglie called affordable workforce housing a top priority, along with the introduction of new industry. Cullen advocated for “no more large hotels, with lots of trees.”
As to the proliferation of hotels while retaining city character, Kimes said, “You have to respond to what the community wants.”
Michaud said the city probably has to decide that “enough is enough.”
Landry said “neighborhood input was important,” while Bova said the comprehensive land-use plan’s conclusions must specifically be applied to zoning citywide, but not at the expense of neighborhoods.
Napolitano said the waterfront was “basically built out,” with little opportunity for more hotels that haven’t already been approved. She said future zoning for neighborhoods abutting the waterfront should have stricter guidelines. McLaughlin said the city has to work with the approved hotels “in order to get the best result in that zone.”
Enger said it was important to maintain “integrity,” but she did not support the ban on waterfront hotels. Taylor, said, “Newport needs a waterfront zone.”
Cullen said we had to have a value and a vision statement, which comes from strategic planning. “Newport hasn’t had a real authentic strategic plan in many, many years. We have to decide as a community what we want to be in the future,” she said.
Ceglie, calling the question difficult, said, “I don’t think people understand that the council is not the end all and be all on hotels. You need to strike a balance.”
Fuerte said she was in favor of possibly changing zoning ordinances.
Grinkin said, “Everything is going forward now and we hear the community’s voice and go in that direction.”
A question on climate change produced a variety of complex answers. Some cited improvements in water, sewer and runoff.
Kimes said future building should provide green space to deal with rising water levels. Mc- Laughlin said the sewer system investment dealt with three inches of rain in 45 minutes three weeks ago, but water runoff is a serious issue. Ceglie and Taylor cited rising sea levels. Taylor wanted the planning department to look at it. Ceglie said the city has put in measures, like shoring up the seawall.
“Education, education, education,” Cullen said. “We have to get our kids involved in the process.”
Fuerte suggested working with the Environmental Commission.
As for seeking alternatives beyond property taxes to enhance revenues, Bova suggested parking revenue as a partial solution. Landry said speeding ticket revenue might help.
Taylor said the city wanted to look at the hotel and food and beverage taxes, but Napolitano said they cannot be charged more than they are.
Ceglie said Newport should hire a government affairs candidate to represent the city at the Statehouse.
Cullen said that 3,500 people work at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, but only 6 percent live in Newport. “We’re stuck in this tourism kind of mindset. There are so many things we can do,” she said.
Fuerte cited many “large” properties in Newport that do not pay taxes, and said the city should take a deeper look to see how “some revenue can be raised from that.”
Michaud said the council should look at fee structures and put more properties on the tax rolls.
In the “yes” and “no” lightning round, Kimes and Michaud were the only candidates who did not support a Homestead Exemption.
None of the 12 candidates favored discontinuing the ward system to make all candidates At Large.
Only Landry and Fuerte said they would not support a study of a regionalized high school in the future, regardless of the impending vote on a new Rogers High. All the candidates said their vision of the North End was conceived, at least in part, by the current proposal of that district by consultants.
None of the first six candidates supported moving the Christopher Columbus statue at Memorial Boulevard and Bellevue Avenue. The second group of six were not asked their opinion.