Isabel Griffith of ALN appointed chairwoman for Charter Review Commission

Charter review panel is urged to deal with ‘hot button’ issues 

By Sean Flynn  Staff writer

Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop opened the first meeting of the new city Charter Review Commission on Wednesday night by urging the members not to shy away from “hot button” issues.

“You should not have preconceived ideas,” he said. “For example, should we have an appointed School Committee instead of an elected School Committee?”

John Shehan, chairman of the city’s Historic District Commission and an observer at the meeting, suggested another topic sure to cause debate. He said the new commission should consider whether local voters should elect a mayor instead of City Council members choosing one of their colleagues for that role.

“A city of this importance should be electing a mayor,” Shehan said. He said he applied to serve on the Charter Review Commission but was not chosen by the council.

Isabel Griffith
Isabel Griffith

Six of the nine members of the new commission were present and they elected Isabel Griffith chairwoman. She is a former president of the Alliance for a Livable Newport and the Point Association, neighborhood advocacy groups.

Mary Ann Marin was chosen vice chairwoman. She served as chairwoman of the Newport Hospitality Commission for about seven years, beginning in 1993.

Attorney David P. Martland was elected secretary. The other three members present included former   
City Councilman Charles Y. Duncan, Rogers High School teacher Bill Kimes and Sarah Atkins, an employee of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission and former Newport program director for Social Venture Partners Rhode Island.

Absent were members Lauren Carson, a member of the city’s Energy and Environment Commission; Patrick K. Kelley, former chairman of the School Committee; and Terry Nathan, president of the Inter-national Yacht Restoration School.

The new commission will meet the first and third Wednesdays of the month beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the Newport Public Library. Each meeting will begin with a public comment period.

The commission members are expected to have their recommendations completed by April so they can be presented at the City Council’s regularly scheduled meeting on April 23, 2014.

If the council adopts any of the proposed changes, local voters would approve or reject them in a referendum that would be on the ballot on Nov. 4, 2014.

Winthrop proposed in June that School Committee members be appointed by the City Council.

“This would open up the process to allow people who have qualifications to serve on the School Committee, and not require them to run in an election,” he said at the time.

The City Council last had a Charter Review Commission in 2007, and voters in November 2008 approved all 23 proposed changes, many of them minor. The charter change that attracted the most attention that year was allowing the police chief and the fire chief to be hired from outside the ranks of the local police and fire departments. Until then, the charter permitted only Newport police officers and firefighters to be considered for those jobs.

The last Charter Review Commission also briefly considered the idea of an appointed School Committee.

Robert J. Leary, then the School Committee vice chairman and currently a School Committee member, said at a commission meeting on Sept. 28, 2007, it should explore whether the School Committee should be appointed by the City Council instead of being elected by voters.

Opponents to such a change sometimes ask who would appoint the City Council members.

Duncan took that thought process a step further Wednesday night.

“Maybe the School Committee should appoint the City Council,” he said.


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