Can Culture Have Role in Newport City Charter?

By Tom Walsh  (read more) Newport This Week

Amid a polite but intensive discussion on Feb. 5 about how the city manager, mayor and the rest of the City Council should manage themselves in conducting public business, there was this comment from Isabel Griffith, the Charter Review Commission’s chairperson:

“The Council works the way it does now not because of language in the charter but from the culture of the council,” she said. “The way they do things is something that has been passed down.” The city of Newport, she said, has a culture all its own.

Official seal of Newport, Rhode Island
Official seal of Newport, Rhode Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question is this: Can the nine members of the Charter Review Commission figure out a way to revise the city charter without stepping on the city’s historic culture?

This ticklish problem hovered over the commission’s discussion of how—or whether—to revise the charter to better address the way the city manager, the mayor (who is actually the chairman of the City Council) and the other six councilors communicate with and among themselves and the public.

Among various definitions, Webster defines “culture” as something “that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”

All of this became important to the review commission last week as it considered apparent management shortcomings in the way council members, including the mayor and City Manager Jane Howington, communicate on city business. Howington told the panel that councilors often go straight to city department heads with requests and directives.

“It’s like having seven bosses,” she said. There was no disagreement that such a system would appear to be inefficient and troubling to manage.

However, Mayor Henry F. Winthrop said there is a certain political reality to the way things work. “If you need something done, you call your city councilor,” he said. “That’s not going to go away. We’re driven by the need to respond to citizens’ concerns.” But he could also see the management problems that arise. “When a council member tells department staff to do something, they drop everything without regard to directions they may have from the city manager,” Winthrop said.

Commission member Terry Nathan said flatly, “There’s a management problem here that relates to the ability of the city manager to function as the city’s chief operating officer.” He added, “It’s okay to talk to everyone but you have to have a way to act and get things done.”

While emphasizing that “I don’t want to suggest that people can’t talk to other people,” Howington also declared that “making us more effective is the role of the council.”

In an interview this week, Griffith, the Charter Review Commission chairperson, said the charter is a document that is “specific but also very broad. You can’t use the city charter to change peoples’ minds. It’s not designed to make people do what they don’t want to do.”

The charter, she said, can specify such things as how a mayor is elected, terms of office, and years when elections take place. “But you can’t use the charter to change peoples’ behavior.” She said a charter cannot create commissions. “That’s a policy matter. The council does that.” She also agreed that the commission may be limited in defining how people in government communicate, as it could violate the constitutional right to freedom of speech. “You just can’t do that,” she said.

Griffith said she likes Newport’s form of government the way it is. As for the city’s “culture,” she said, “People don’t like surprises. That’s part of the culture.” As an example, she cited the furor over changes that were made to Queen Anne’s Square. “Some people have still not forgiven Newport government for that,” she said.

“It’s about tradeoffs,” Griffith continued. “I like being governed by a committee rather than by one or two people who get to say what’s happening all by themselves. I’ll sacrifice efficiency for the comfort we have in the way things are done here.”

Last week, Griffith’s view of things prevailed in a 4-2 straw vote on a motion “not to change the duties of the mayor” as currently provided by charter. Nathan and William Kimes voted against the motion. Griffith, Mary Ann Marin, David Martland and Charles Y. Duncan supported it. Sarah Atkins and Lauren Carson abstained.

“Our members are all very thoughtful and they have their own ideas,” Griffith said. “We are not in consensus right now.”


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