Newport Rhode Island – 11 Charter Review Commission Ideas Head to Ballot

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City of Newport Charter

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Final Report of The Commission – May 2014

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After five months of study by the Charter Review Commission (CRC) and weeks of deliberations by City Council, several proposed changes to Newport’s Charter will move forward to the Nov. 4 ballot for voters to determine their ultimate fate.

Councilors wrapped up debate on the 20 CRC recommendations at their regular meeting on Wednesday, July 23, and decided to send 11 items to the electorate.

However, the CRC’s more contentious ideas regarding School Committee selection and expanding the current three-ward system to four met the same fate as in the first round of voting on July 9. They did not survive council muster, notwithstanding a change in position by Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano that narrowed the margin.

Joining the side of Councilors Kathryn Leonard and Michael Farley in hoping to move the ward is- sues to the ballot, Napolitano told Newport This Week just prior to the July 23 session that she had re-examined her stance since her initial comments on July 9, when she had intimated that there was no reason to return to a four-ward system.

“While I haven’t changed my mind on the substance of the CRC’s recommendations, any time we have the opportunity to let the voters have a say, we should. The CRC worked very hard, and the voters deserve to be allowed to vote on it,” she said after reconsidering. “I respect the right of the citizenry to have a say.”

Napolitano’s move did not win the day for the CRC recommendations, however, with Mayor Henry Winthrop and Councilors Marco Camacho, Justin McLaughlin, and Naomi Neville voting against sending the ward questions to the ballot .

McLaughlin took the lead in opposing the measures, noting that few public comments were offered at CRC meetings. Moreover, he said that the Charter was never a topic of concern in his frequent conversations with constituents.

He also expressed frustration that the CRC lacked proper resources and wasn’t necessarily given guidance and adequate time to complete its job.

“The council did a poor job of outlining its expectations and the process that we would follow,” said McLaughlin. “But that doesn’t diminish the authority and the responsibility of the council to exercise its ‘advice and consent’ role in the process.”

Especially in regards to the ward system, McLaughlin commented, “As a manager and a supervisor in my career, the hardest thing I had to do was to tell somebody who had just busted their hump to do something, invested all of their time and energy, both intellectual and physical, that ‘You have not produced what I wanted you to produce.’ I don’t lightly tell the Charter Review Commission that we don’t necessarily have what we need for the community.”

“I think we need to look at the other paradigms for electing councils, with hybrids of at-large, wards, and where everybody’s elected on an at-large basis but you still have ward representation,” McLaughlin concluded after a lengthy discussion of his thoughts. “I think there are some good examples in the model city charter that most people use when they try to do this work.”

Leonard, who consistently voted in both council sessions to send all of the CRC recommendations to the ballot, dissented. “I really disagree with [McLaughlin’s statements] and I’m going to take the side of the Charter Review Commission and other commissions. If I were volunteering, the first thing that I would say is, ‘Why would I volunteer again?’” she said. “My second comment is that I did receive calls and I did receive emails and the people that communicated with me wanted to have a voice…. If voters do not want to support it, then they’ll tell us.”

Although disappointed that some of the CRC’s signature suggestions died in council, commission chair Isabel Griffith told Newport This Week that “the interested parties did what they could.” She agreed that the CRC received little guidance in approaching its tasks, but felt that the commission was given the authority to proceed in the way it saw fit.

“We were given clear direction to research and deliberate our form of government,” she said. “We would not have put in hours of research and debate if we had realized earlier that the key issues were not going to be on the ballot.”

As far as the 11 amendments endorsed by the council, Griffith said that Alliance for a Livable Newport will be one of the main drivers in an effort to educate the public on the Charter recommendations prior to the election. She explained that ALN will host election year forums on several initiatives, including the casino question and facilities bond.

Griffith had a positive experience in leading the CRC. “It was incredibly intense, but we all learned a lot about municipal governments and how they function. But in the end, no matter how many rules you’ve got, you can’t change behavior through legislation.”

List of Members

City of Newport Charter

Commission email:

Final Report of The Commission – May 2014

by Barry Bridges

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