Charter review panel continues work

By DANIEL KITTREDGE
Posted 2/19/20

By DANIEL KITTREDGE The Charter Review Commission has started the process of reviewing proposed changes to the city's governing document and preparing recommendations for the November election ballot. During its meeting on Feb. 5, the commission took

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Charter review panel continues work

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The Charter Review Commission has started the process of reviewing proposed changes to the city’s governing document and preparing recommendations for the November election ballot.

During its meeting on Feb. 5, the commission took votes on three potential charter amendments – measures that would establish new guidelines for the redistricting process, expand the mayor’s veto power, and exclude Adult Correctional Institutions inmates from population counts used to create ward maps.

The prison population proposal fell short on a 3-8 vote, with commissioners Ellen O’Hara, Katie Nee and Robert Santurri Jr. in favor and commissioners Michael Lepizzera, Steven Frias, Dan DosSantos, Matthew Pallini, Edward Coccio, Evan Kirshenbaum, Joe Agresti and Matthew Reilly opposed.

The redistricting proposal was recommended on a 10-1 vote, with Kirshenbaum the sole dissenter. The veto authority proposal was recommended on a 6-5 vote, with Lepizzera, Frias, Coccio, Kirshenbaum, Agresti and Reilly in favor and DosSantos, Pallini, O’Hara, Nee and Santurri opposed

The commission additionally discussed a proposal that would extend the length of City Council terms from two to four years, although a vote was delayed pending the submission of formal language for consideration.

The proposal related to the counting of inmates in the city’s population – an issue that has long been the subject of controversy, as well the focus of an ACLU of Rhode Island legal challenge – drew some of the night’s sharpest debate.

Critics of the current practice say the counting of inmates gives outsize influence to voters in Ward 6, where the ACI is located. Nee, the sponsor of the proposed charter amendment, said the counting of prisoners in the city’s population count “violates the concept that we should all care about of one person, one vote.”

“As a constituent of Ward 1, I believe my vote should count as much as a constituent of Ward 6,” she said.

Santurri agreed, saying city officials have “an ethical and moral responsibility” to uphold the principle of one person, one vote.

“You either believe that the residents of Ward 1 and Ward 6 both have one vote, or you believe that the residents of Ward 6 have slightly more influence, as an individual, because there’s less of a voting population,” he said.

He added: “No council person in Ward 6 is going to the ACI, no citywide councilman is going to the ACI, the mayor, to my knowledge, has never gone to the ACI to visit a constituent and ask about constituent services.”

Opponents of the proposed amendment put forward a different view. Citing voter turnout figures from recent elections, Frias said Ward 6 – despite including the prison population – “does not produce less votes than other wards.” In fact, he said, more Ward 6 produced more votes for City Council seats in 2016 than wards 2 or 3.

“I understand the passions people feel on this … I happen to look at this as, why do we want to exclude the prisoners from the Census data?” he said.

Citing members of the community such as military personnel, college students and nursing home residents, he added: “There are other people who are transient and nonvoters in our city … We don’t treat those people differently.”

He later continued: “Prison gerrymandering, does it exist? I believe it probably does exist. Cranston’s not a good example of it.”

There was far less debate over the redistricting amendment, which Frias and O’Hara developed jointly. Frias said it was based largely on a similar provision in Providence, and is meant to provide “guardrails” against gerrymandering in the ward-drawing process.

The new language would require the redistricting process be conducted via ordinance. It specifically calls for the process to “respect the geographic integrity of local neighborhoods or local communities of interest in [a] manner which minimizes their division to the [greatest] extent possible,” and it further requires that the place of residence of any incumbent or candidate “not be considered in the creation of wards.”

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

In terms of the mayoral veto expansion – which would authorize the mayor to reject specific budget decreases or the budget as a whole, rather than only budget increases – Frias said the proposal would provide for greater “fiscal stability and prudence.”

“This is a power for the next mayor, whether it be a Democrat or a Republican,” he said.

The Charter Review Commission was set to hold its next meeting on Feb. 19, starting at 6 p.m. in City Hall’s Council Chambers.

The agenda includes discussion and possible votes on a number of proposals, including the extension of council terms from two to four years; the extension of School Committee terms from two to four years; the repeal of a requirement that campaign finance reports be filed with the local Board of Canvassers; the authorization of electronic meeting notifications for City Council members; the establishment of a minimum funding requirement for the city’s so-called “rainy day” fund; the creation of a 3-percent cap on tax levy increases; and elimination of the requirement that the city solicitor reside in Cranston.

A number of the measures that have appeared on the commission’s Feb. 5 and Feb. 19 agendas reflect recommendations submitted through Mayor Allan Fung’s administration late last year.

Frias, who serves as the commission’s chairman, said after the votes on recommendations regarding the various charter amendments under consideration, “there will be a discussion about which we recommend should go on the 2020 ballot and which ones should go onto the 2022 ballot.” The commission’s recommendations would then be sent to the City Council, which would determine what items go before voters and on which ballot.

As the commission’s work – part of a process required every 10 years – continues, the City Council’s Democratic caucus has laid out its positions on Fung’s proposed charter amendments and submitted three measures of its own.

The Fung administration’s lengthy list of proposed amendments includes increased veto authority, the “rainy day” fund minimum balance and the 3-percent tax increase cap.

Others would allow fourth-quarter budgetary transfers in the first quarter of the next fiscal year; grant the mayor’s office increased emergency appropriation authority; and consolidate aspects of city and school purchasing.

Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos said the caucus – which includes Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas, Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley and Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan – agrees with some of the mayor’s proposals, including the elimination of the residency requirement for the solicitor’s office.

“It’s such an important position that the mayor shouldn’t be limited in his or her choice,” he said.

The Democratic caucus also supports the removal of the local campaign finance report filing requirement, Stycos said, since new online filing mechanisms have rendered it moot.

Stycos said the Democrats oppose a number of the mayor’s proposals.

In terms of the fourth-quarter transfers amendment, he said: “We oppose that change. That is what the mayor does now, and I’ve objected to it … When the Democrats controlled the council, we objected to that.”

The expanded emergency appropriations proposal, Stycos said, would give “too much power to the mayor.”

“I find it really hard to believe there’s going to be an emergency that a 48-hour notice meeting wouldn’t be able to handle,” he said.

In terms of the proposal to require a minimum of 5 percent of the city’s operating budget be maintaining in the “rainy day” fund, Stycos said the opposition of Democrats is rooted in two reasons. On one hand, he said, there is concern that codifying the 5 percent figure would actually discourage future officials from placing more money in reserves. On the other hand, he said, the requirement could constrict city leaders in the event of “drastic state aid cuts or some kind of other unusual circumstance where you needed to spend the surplus.”

Stycos said the council’s Democrats oppose the expanded veto authority for the mayor, largely due to the provision that would allow the mayor’s initial budget plan to pass into law if the review process did not meet the current timeline set out in the city’s charter. He said the caucus does support extending the mayor’s veto power to include budget decreases made by the council.

In terms of the tax levy cap, Stycos said state law already limits annual increases to 4 percent.

“It just doesn’t make sense to limit it any more solely for the purpose of saying, ‘I drove it down 1 percent,’” he said.

Stycos said the council’s Democrats are supportive of consolidated purchasing “in principle” and would like to hear more specifics before taking a formal position. The caucus also favors lowering the existing Comprehensive Plan amendment advertising requirements, provided that it is accompanied by some form of online advertising alternative.

Stycos said the council Democrats also support three other charter amendments – the removal of the ACI population from the count used to develop ward maps, providing compensation for School Committee members and pushing back the charter’s current mid-May deadline for the completion of the budget process.

Stycos called the Charter Review Commission’s vote against the prison population measure “really disappointing.”

“It isn’t fair,” he said of the current practice. “It’s against one man, one vote.”

In terms of the budget deadline, Stycos said the caucus has not recommended a specific date, but believes moving the deadline closer to June would prove beneficial.

“So much depends on state, and you don’t know what the state aid is until the legislature passes the budget … If you give it a little bit more time, you might have a better idea of what you’re getting,” he said.

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