NEWPORT – The six City Council at-large candidates faced off in the council chamber of City Hall on Tuesday night with little conflict on ideas and proposals. Close to 100 people filled the chamber, with most of them on the first floor and close to 40 in the two upstairs balconies.
“They were very civil,” said resident Chip Leakas after the forum, which was sponsored by the Alliance for a Livable Newport, a neighborhood advocacy group.
The only new face on the dais in this council election cycle was Jamie Bova, an electrical engineer and product manager at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, who is making her first run for municipal office.
Claude Andrews Lavarre, a Navy captain who had 23 years of active duty until he retired in 1989 and ran unsuccessfully for an at-large council seat in 2014, is making his second run. He has worked as a consultant for a defense industry company since retirement and now has his own consulting firm.
Henry “Harry” Winthrop, who has served about 10 years on the council, is seeking to return. He served on the council in the 1990s, ran again in 2010, was chosen as mayor by his colleagues in August 2012 and held the office until the end of 2014, after he failed to win reelection that November.
Three of the four incumbent at-large City Council members are running for re-election: Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, John Florez and Justin S. McLaughlin. The fourth incumbent, Naomi L. Neville, is not seeking re-election.
There were some slight flashpoints as candidates answered questions posed by Jill Kassis, first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Newport County.
Florez said he would propose a resolution later this month calling on the council to pass an ordinance that would have the effect of reining in panhandlers in the city. He said Providence attorney John Tarantino has drafted an ordinance that would stand up to legal scrutiny. The ordinance would target exchanges between occupants of vehicles and people outside the car as a safety issue. To the extent the proposed ordinance applies to panhandlers, it wouldn’t allow them to do it on a roadway or a median.
Napolitano pointed out that anti-panhandling ordinances have been declared unconstitutional in federal courts and she would not want to burden the city and its taxpayers with a costly lawsuit.
Just this year, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully opposed a Cranston panhandling ordinance in a lawsuit that was filed on behalf of a veteran with disabilities.
Napolitano said she would rather have social service agencies work to help panhandlers meet their needs so they would not have to be on the streets. “We have to be very careful,” she said. “I don’t want to put our residents on the line.” “We did not make it to the moon by being careful,” Florez responded. “We don’t want to be held hostage by the ACLU.”
Florez was the only candidate who favors having a popularly elected mayor, instead of having a mayor chosen by council members from among their colleagues, as is presently done. The council also includes three ward representatives.
Winthrop said he believes the Gateway visitors center should be moved from downtown Newport to the north end and a user-friendly intermodal transportation plan developed there to keep cars out of downtown.
He said he believes a bike and pedestrian path along the rail corridor should be a component of a proposed plan for the re-alignment of the Pell Bridge entrance and exit ramps.
If the land where Newport Grand is located opens up because the slots license is moved to Tiverton – if voters approve the statewide and local referendums in November – there would be about 76 acres that could be developed, Winthrop said.
Bova said research shows that many communities have benefited from alternative transportation projects and there is substantial economic growth associated with bikeways. Federal grants are available for infrastructure projects and could be used to fund the project, she said. Local and national bike advocacy groups work with cities to identify funding options, she said.
Bova also said the city should acquire the Naval Hospital property and establish a park along the waterfront, a proposal supported by all the candidates.
Lavarre had the most far-reaching proposals. He would establish an underground parking facility in the north end and have a tunnel dug for about a mile for rail transport of people into the downtown.
“They did it under the English Channel,” he said.
Lavarre is the only candidate who favored privatizing municipal water services. He said several times that he believes in the invisible hand of capitalism, which helps demand and supply of goods reach equilibrium in a free market.
“The hidden hand beats government every time,” he said.
He would favor splitting government into “current operations,” to deal with maintenance needs such as potholes, and “future operations” to deal with planning.
Lack of parking in the city was an issue during the forum.
McLaughlin said when he and others explored constructing a parking garage at the Mary Street municipal lot, it would have cost about $100,000 per space and was not financially feasible.
“We need a reliable trolley system,” he said.
McLaughlin said the city has to deal with the policy regulating short-term rentals. Currently, rentals in most areas of the city are not allowed for less than 30 days, but he knows of a home on Historic Hill that advertises rentals for $500 a night.
He would have city staff and the zoning officer review the policy and make recommendations to the council.
Benjamin S. Kessler and Kimberly L. Shute both returned declarations of candidacy for an at-large council seat, but have apparently withdrawn from the race.