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To: Members of the City Council of Newport, RI
From: Citizens of Newport, RI
Re: City Council decision not to allow certain recommendations from the Charter Review Commission to be placed on the ballot (Changes related to Sections 2-1; 3-4; 3-7; and 8-2 of the Charter)
As organizations and individuals that work with citizens and groups all across Newport, we wish to express our disappointment and disagreement with the City Council’s decision in its meeting on July 9th with regard to the recommendations provided by the Charter Review Commission (CRC). We feel that that decision by the council to reject four of the CRC’s recommendations concerning the number of ward versus at large council seats and the application of wards to the School Committee and not allow these recommendations to go in front of the voters on the ballot this November was wrong, and respectfully ask that you reconsider that decision in your meeting on July 23rd, and vote to allow the CRC’s recommendations to be placed on the November election ballot for the citizens to decide.
We believe that the work of the CRC was too important and too thorough to be rejected so quickly – and without much in the form of a public discussion. At the July 9th Council meeting, limiting any public comments to just the beginning of the Council’s discussions on the CRC’s recommendation set a tone for limited input – especially by prohibiting public input and discussion as Council dealt with the recommendations and voted on key amendments. We feel this was not only wrong, but denied the public an ability to have these issues properly vetted.
We do not disagree with the Council’s rejection of the recommendations that were deemed not needed or already provided for by the current Charter. Included in that are the changes you made in response to advice about legal ramifications and changes that you felt would be better put forth as ordinances instead of Charter. But we strongly object to the refusal to allow the larger issues of the election of Council and School Board to be decided by the voters who must live under that form of government and representation.
The CRC process involved many hours of time in research, meetings, public hearings, and conversations. The CRC held many meetings and forums and received input (either directly at hearings, through email and correspondence, and/or through calls and conversations) from broad-based citizens all across Newport. The input and recommendations of the public were taken very seriously, and were the basis of the CRC’s recommendations. The recommendations given to the Council by the CRC were not decisions made lightly or without hours of input from citizens, conversations, and deliberations.
The CRC explored a wide variety of changes, vetted all with the public at several open hearings, rejected several items based on research and public input, and presented a final report that projected the view of issues from the public, from organizations and groups representing thousands of voters — not just the views of the CRC members.
We believe that the Council should reconsider its initial decision and allow for the CRC recommendations regarding the number of Wards in the city and the way School Committee members are elected to be voted on this November for the following reasons:
- The public deserves the right to vote on how it is going to be governed and the type of representation they will live under. We believe that the public is interested in these issues and will have ample opportunities to make an informed decision before the November elections.
Allowing the citizens to vote on issues that seem controversial is not a new concept to Newport.
This Council itself recently reaffirmed the policy of allowing controversial issues to go on the ballot when it voted to put the question of Table Games on the ballot this November. It seems ironic that the Council wants residents of Newport to vote on whether or not they want Table games, but the decision on their representation, how they may be governed, and the organization of the City is deemed not worthy of a vote by the citizens of Newport.
Newport’s history is a history based on representative government and the citizen’s right to make their own decisions. This year we celebrate 375 years of that philosophy. What kind of message does this send to the public as to their engagement and involvement in the city and the way it is governed?
- In response to comments that the CRC’s recommendations might be too much for the public to digest and understand, we respectfully disagree with that thought. We believe that the voters of Newport are not only capable of spending the time learning more about the key issues facing them, but will take the time to make informed decisions.
In 2008 there were over twenty CRC recommendations placed on the ballot. It was a lot for the public to digest, but organizations within Newport AND the voters rose to the occasion and invested the time and effort to learn more before voting. The Alliance for a Livable Newport (ALN) held a public forum on the ballot issues, videotaped that forum for viewing on Public Access TV, publicized viewing dates/times, placed a full page ad in the local newspapers with easy to understand explanations of each of the issues and handed out copies to voters at all of the polling stations in the City on Election Day. ALN’s actions were acclaimed at the time and ALN is prepared to do the same this year. And we believe that other organizations and groups will join in this effort this year. This election year there is the added opportunity of having the forum video available for viewing online and the ballot summary sheet available to be downloaded and printed by voters.
- There was much discussion amongst the council related to decisions on elected representation—i.e., issues about wards and how members of the Council and School Board should be elected. In their work and public hearings, the CRC investigated all options, reached out extensively to the public, heard from many organizations and individuals — including past members of the CRC and elected officials who worked hard for the city and represented voters for years. The CRC took a balanced approach to their recommendation, and strongly felt that the citizens of Newport deserve to have the final say as to how they are governed.For reasons unknown, the Council not only explored but had intense discussion on moving to an all at large Council – and actually cast a vote on this without any opportunity for the input from voters and the public. We feel it was ironic that the Council felt as though it was acceptable to cast a vote on eliminating ward representation without any public input — but that the citizens shouldn’t have the right to vote on elected representation AFTER hours of public input and recommendations by a citizen-based group.
- From comments made by the council, it appears as though your primary voiced reason for not wanting to increase the number of wards was that you feel you are called upon to make decisions affecting the entire City, not just individual wards; and, therefore, your constituency goes beyond the wards – and ward representation might cause a conflict for members of the Council.
We do not see that as an issue, and do not believe that it has been an issue in the past. In the CRC’s work, the public did not step forward to express concern that the current council – or other councils in prior years—had a conflict of not only representing the ward they were elected to but also balancing that with the overall need of the city. It appears as though the public may have more confidence than the Council does in itself that this has not been a problem in the past and should not be an issue in the future.
We live in a hybrid democracy/republic nation with a firm base in representative government. Carrying forward your discussion of city-wide rather than ward-wide responsibilities, then all the Rhode Island General Assembly members should be elected at large like the governor and all U.S. Congress members should be elected at large like the president. That is not the way our founding fathers set as the way representative government works.
Newport has a very strong tradition of residents identifying with their neighborhoods, and the wards are the closest we can come to providing representation that recognizes that tradition. That argument holds equally for the City Council and for the School Committee. The fact that by chance the current School Committee may have a city-wide spread of members or candidates is not sufficient to deny assuring that such prevails going forward.
If the Council had major concerns with the CRC’s recommendations, then those concerns could have been identified and vetted earlier – and not what appeared to be rushed through a Council meeting with a restricted agenda for public comment. The Council has had access to the CRC Report since the time it appeared on the docket for your May 28 meeting (approximately May 21 or 22) and had ample opportunity to ask questions and obtain clarifications at the workshop you held with the CRC and FRC on June 12. If there were objections to any of the CRC recommendations, those objections could have been made public earlier to allow for public response and input.
We believe that the Council’s vote to not allow key recommendations by the CRC in effect disenfranchises Newport’s voters. We believe that it is a mistake for the Council to prevent a public vote without so much as holding its own public hearing or otherwise engaging the public first in a more thorough manner.
The recommended changes to Sections 2-1; 3-4; 3-7; and 8-2 of the City Charter belong on the ballot in November; and we hope you will reconsider your decision and not deny Newport voters their right to decide.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Organizations and Individuals Signing Statement of Support (As of July 21, 2014)
- Alliance for Livable Newport
- Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association
- Castle Hill Neighborhood Association
- The Historic Hill Neighborhood Association
- Off-Broadway Neighborhood Association
- The Point Association of Newport
(these individuals are signing a personal statement of support and not on behalf of an organization)
- Ron Becker (Office of the President, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Lauren Carson (Member of the Charter Review Commission, Advisory Board of Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Beth Cullen (President of the Point Association of Newport)
- Mike Cullen (Chairman, Rhode Island STEAM Academy; Advisory Board, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Isabel Griffith (Chairman of Charter Review Commission, Office of the President, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- George Herchenroether (Advisory Board, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- John Hirschboeck (Office of the President, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Tom Hockaday (Director, Alliance for a Livable Newport; First Vice President of the Point Association of Newport)
- William Kimes (Member of the Charter Review Commission)
- Bonnie Kniskern (Advisory Board, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Chip Leakas (Director, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Mary Ann Marin (Member, Charter Review Commission)
- John McCain (Director, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Jack McVicker (President, Off-Broadway Neighborhood Association; Director, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Jim Moore (President, Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association; Director, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Rico Santi (Historic Hill Neighborhood Association; Director, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Laurie Shaw (Former member of Newport City Council; Second Vice President of the Point Association of Newport)
- Jane Timken (Advisory Board, Alliance for a Livable Newport)
- Roger Wells (Director, Alliance for a Livable Newport)