NEWS

Charter proposals get council's backing

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 7/1/20

By DANIEL KITTREDGE Four proposed amendments to the city's governing document are officially set to go before voters in the fall. During a special meeting June 25, the full City Council backed sending the four charter changes - which had previously

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NEWS

Charter proposals get council's backing

Posted

Four proposed amendments to the city’s governing document are officially set to go before voters in the fall.

During a special meeting June 25, the full City Council backed sending the four charter changes – which had previously received the support of the Ordinance Committee – to the November ballot.

The measures now head to the General Assembly for ballot placement. They include expanded veto authority for the mayor, language aimed at curbing ward gerrymandering, a new minimum balance requirement for Cranston’s “rainy day” fund and a lower cap for annual tax increases.

All four of the charter changes received broad support from the council, which was meeting for the first time following the resignation of former Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley. Votes ranged from 8-0 to 6-2 in favor.

A pair of more minor charter amendments – one eliminating now-redundant local campaign finance reporting requirements, and another allowing council members to be electronically notified of meetings – were unanimously approved for placement on the 2022 ballot.

During the Ordinance Committee’s meeting on June 18, Steve Frias, chairman of the 11-member Charter Review Committee that produced the proposed charter changes, made the case for the measures as focused on ensuring good government and keeping the city on firm financial footing in the years ahead.

“The idea behind this was to maintain fiscal stability, what the mayor and City Council have done for the last decade,” he said.

The measure that would require that the city’s undesignated fund balance – the official term for the so-called “rainy day” fund – equal at least 5 percent of its operating budget was approved 7-1, with Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan opposed. The measure provides exemptions for emergency situations.

The new tax cap proposal seeks to limit annual increases in the tax levy to 3 percent, lower than the 4-percent threshold provided under state law. It was approved on a 6-2 vote, with Donegan and Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins opposed.

At the recommendation of Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos, the tax cap measure was successfully amended to remove a requirement that a supermajority – or four-fifths – of the council approve any levy increase beyond the 3 percent.

Stycos said the supermajority provision would give “huge power to two members of the council” in the limited circumstances during which a higher levy increase would be permitted, such as a disaster situation or a drastic cut in state aid.

“I think that’s much too extreme,” he said.

Stycos’ amendment was approved on a 5-3 vote, with Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady, Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas and Hopkins opposed.

The charter change related to the mayor’s veto authority would allow the city’s chief executive to strike down both increases and decreases made by the City Council to the city budget plan. Presently, that power extends only to increases made by the council. The proposal was approved on a 7-1 vote, with Brady opposed.

The gerrymandering amendment, which Frias said is based on similar measures used in other states, seeks to add language to the charter requiring that ward maps “respect the geographic integrity of local neighborhoods or local communities of interest in a manner which minimizes their division to the extent possible.” The proposed language also states: “Wards shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party.” It was approved on an 8-0 vote.

Two other measures the Charter Review Commission recommended for placement on the 2022 ballot remain in progress before the council.

A proposal to eliminate the requirement that city solicitors reside in Cranston failed on a 3-3 tie vote during the Ordinance Committee’s meeting on June 18 – but that occurred while Council President Michael Farina, a member of the committee, was temporarily absent from the Zoom meeting due to technical issues.

Farina, who was able to rejoin the meeting after the vote, said he would have voted in favor, which in turn would have sent the proposal to the full council with a favorable recommendation. After consultation with legal counsel, the committee voted to forward the matter to its next meeting for reconsideration.

Another of the charter panel’s proposals – a requirement that the city create a citizens guide to the land development process – was tabled after council members voiced support for instead pursuing the concept through an ordinance.

Donegan was among the council members to back that course of action, and Hopkins and Paplauskas have since announced they will jointly sponsor an ordinance regarding the creation of the land development guide.

“It’s a great idea and by passing an ordinance now we do not have to wait for voter approval in 2020 or 2022,” Hopkins said in a statement, which states the ordinance “will charge the planning department with creating, maintaining, and periodically updating” the guide.

“It will include information for the public to understand the zoning and land use process and include information about the role and purpose of the Zoning Board of Review, the process for zone changes, the role of the City Council, the role of the City Plan Commission and the Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map,” the statement reads.

Paplauskas said in the statement: “I am very pleased to co-sponsor this ordinance with Councilman Hopkins. Any time we can help residents more easily understand the local zoning and development process, everyone benefits.”

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