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Charter panel recommends four amendments for ballot

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Four proposed amendments to the city’s charter have been recommended for placement on the November election ballot, including 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.

In what will likely have been its final meeting this year – and which was also its first virtual gathering – the 11-member Charter Review Commission on April 30 unanimously supported Chairman Steven Frias’ recommendation that the four “substantive” amendments be forwarded to the City Council, which will have the final say on whether they are placed on the 2020 ballot.

The commission has also recommended that four other “technical” charter amendments – which involve campaign finance reporting requirements, email meeting notifications for council members, the residency of the city solicitor and the development of a citizen’s guide to land development – be put before voters in subsequent years.

“To avoid an unnecessarily lengthy ballot for the upcoming likely high-turnout presidential election, the Commission decided to recommend four amendments for voter approval in this upcoming election due to their substantive nature and importance,” reads a report Frias compiled for submission to the council and Mayor Allan Fung.

The Charter Review Commission’s work, which began earlier this year, is part of a process completed every 10 years under the terms of the city’s governing document. A planned meeting in March was canceled due to the current public health crisis. The commission’s members were appointed by the mayor and members of the council.

Prior to the April 30 meeting, the commission had already voted to recommend several proposed amendments go before voters.

The “rainy day” fund proposal was recommended on a 10-0 vote during the commission’s Feb. 19 meeting, with Commissioner Evan Kirshenbaum absent. During the April 30 meeting, the measure went for another vote based on what Frias described as a minor clarification of its wording. It was approved 10-1, with Kirshenbaum the sole dissenter.

In essence, the measure would require that the city’s undesignated fund balance – the more formal term for the “rainy day” fund – equal at least 5 percent of its operating budget. Exemptions are provided for emergency situations.

The new tax cap would limit annual increases in the tax levy to 3 percent, lower than the 4-percent threshold provided under state law. It requires exceptions with the requirement for supermajority – or four-fifths – support from the council.

The new tax cap proposal was approved on a 7-3 vote at the Feb. 19 meeting. Frias was joined by Vice Chairwoman Ellen O’Hara and commissioners Michael Lepizzera, Dan DosSantos, Edward Coccio, Joe Agresti and Matthew Reilly in the majority, while commissioners Katie Nee, Matthew Pallini and Robert Santurri Jr. dissented. Commissioner Evan Kirshenbaum was absent from the meeting.

The gerrymandering amendment, which is based on similar measures used in other states, would 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 new language would require that “major roads or natural features” be used as much as possible when determining boundary lines, while it also seeks to prohibit the place of residence of any official or candidate from being considered in the map-drawing process.

The new language continues: “Wards shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party.”

During the commission’s meeting on Feb. 5, the gerrymandering amendment was approved on a 10-1 vote, with Kirshenbaum the sole dissenter.

The final of the four measures sought for placement on this year’s ballot would expand the mayor’s veto authority to include any decreases the City Council makes to the city’s budget plan. Currently, the mayor’s veto authority extends only to increases the council approves.

Initially, the proposal included new authority for the mayor to veto the council-approved budget in its entirety. That measure was approved on a 6-5 vote during the commission’s Feb. 5 meeting, with Lepizzera, Frias, Coccio, Kirshenbaum, Agresti and Reilly in the majority and DosSantos, Pallini, O’Hara, Nee and Santurri opposed.

During the April 30 meeting, however, Frias proposed an amendment that would scale back the new authority to include only budget increases and decreases, rather than the entire document. He said the revised proposal was based on conversations with Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos and was intended to garner broader support at the polls.

“It’s good to have bipartisan support for an amendment,” Frias said.

The revised plan was approved on a 10-1 vote, with with Pallini the sole dissenter.

Other proposals fell short of needed support during the commission’s deliberations, including the lengthening of City Council and School Committee terms from two to four years and the exclusion of inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions from population counts used to draw ward maps.

Procedurally, the amendments recommended by the Charter Review Commission will likely be introduced as new business during the council’s regular May meeting. The proposals would then be sent to the committee level for review in June before heading back before the full council.

The four technical amendments were recommended for subsequent years in hopes of not overcrowding the 2020 ballot. In addition to contests for federal offices and local races for mayor, City Council and School Committee, voters are likely to decide on a major school facilities bond question.

“To avoid an unnecessarily lengthy ballot for the upcoming likely high-turnout presidential election, the Commission decided to recommend four amendments for voter approval in this upcoming election due to their substantive nature and importance,” Frias wrote in his report. “The Commission recommended four other amendments of a technical nature for voter approval in an election subsequent to the 2020 election. The Commission adopted this approach on a vote of 11-0.”

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