In Town Council meeting hall debate, comfort loses to tradition - for now

In Town Council meeting hall debate, comfort loses to tradition - for now

The rear entrance of the Smithfield Town Hall has a lone light to illuminate the parking lot at night, causing concern among some at a recent town council meeting. (Valley Breeze & Observer photo by Elise Manahan)

SMITHFIELD - Taxpayer John Serapiglia, 76, has attended gatherings in Town Hall all his life, starting as a 2nd-grader when a doctor took out his tonsils in the Town Council chamber because it also served as a part-time medical clinic.

These days, he says, the council has no business moving half of its meetings elsewhere, because the building on Farnum Pike is still the seat of government.

But Rose Marie Cipriano, chairwoman of the municipal Financial Review Commission, says the "seat" of government here is a chamber full of rock-hard wooden chairs that punish the backside.

And, she adds, the Town Hall parking lot is so dark and creepy at night that "I never know whether it's a two-legged or four-legged critter I'm going to have to confront."

Those were just a few of the dueling arguments that erupted June 4 when Councilwoman Suzanna Alba asked her colleagues to alternate their twice-monthly meetings between the 74-year-old Town Hall, in the Georgiaville section, and the modern senior center at Deerfield Park, on the Greenville side of town.

Benign though it seemed as an agenda item, the discussion provoked what was probably the most bristling division of the council since it was elected last November with a 3-2 Republican majority.

It also produced a growing public assertiveness on the part of Democrat Alba, 30, a political newcomer who plans soon to propose another issue sure to fuel debate: She wants a change in the municipal charter to eliminate stipends for members of the Town Council, School Committee and several other municipal agencies.

Currently, council members earn $4,000 a year and the president gets $4,500. School board members are paid $3,000, with the chairman getting $3,700.

Alba said other stipends, for travel or otherwise and ranging from $75 to $800 a year, go to various members or alternate members of the Zoning Board, Board of Canvassers, Board of Assessment Review, and the Conservation Commission secretary. All the positions are part-time.

Alba, who said she is donating her council stipend to charity, believes that service on municipal boards, and state agencies excluding the state general officers, should be voluntary.

She said she intended initially to refuse the money, but was told that it had already been appropriated. She said giving it to charity seemed a better alternative than having it subsumed into the general fund.

Alba said that if stipends are eliminated, the savings might be put toward the salary of a grant writer who could bring in additional money.

Her June 4 motion to hold every other council meeting at the senior center failed when it could muster only a 2-2 stalemate, with Republican Ronald Manni absent because of illness. The idea drew support from Alba's Democratic party-mate, Bernard Hawkins, but opposition from the two other Republicans, President Alberto LaGreca Jr. and Republican Maxine Cavanagh.

Alba says she is contemplating re-introducing her motion at a later date when all five council members can be present.

In proposing the alternate meeting site, Alba cited some of Town Hall's alleged shortcomings and said she's heard from residents who have expressed support for a second venue on the other side of town.

"It's our responsibility to make government as accessible as possible," she said.

But LaGreca, describing himself as a "traditionalist," declared, "The Town Hall should be where the council meeting is."

Cavanagh said moving some of the meetings from their traditional site would be showing favoritism to Greenville.

During a discussion that turned emotional on both sides, Alba said she was "extremely disappointed" at the rebuff of what she considered an attempt to provide a convenience for Greenville residents and safer, more commodious surroundings.

Alba's push for the senior center was strongly backed by Cipriano, who often shows up at council sessions with a cushion to soften the impact of the meeting room's brutally uncomfortable row chairs.

Cipriano also wondered about the safety of wheelchair-bound taxpayers who might attend council meetings - the chamber is on the second floor - asking, if an emergency should make elevator use impossible, "Who's going to carry these people down the stairs?"

The senior center is a single-story building.

Serapiglia, who said after the meeting that in his childhood at the former Irving S. Cook Elementary School opposite Town Hall - now the school administration building - medical procedures were routinely performed in the council chamber.

He opposed any move to Greenville, saying, "This is the center of town government and it's where the meetings should be held."

Donald Brown, a long-time resident of the area and vice chairman of the Conservation Commission, agreed, adding that municipal records are stored in Town Hall and would not be readily available in the senior center if needed during a council session.

Resolution of the issue, if it does come up again, would rest with Manni. When reached later, he said that because of the polarized feelings that were generated he will not be ready to offer an opinion until he reads a transcript of the proceedings.

Alba did win a related victory when the council supported another of her motions, to provide coffee, tea, and other refreshments to the public for a half hour before every meeting.

But even that produced a bit of squabbling, although more genial, when Cavanagh said any refreshments involving pastry would set a bad example for healthful eating.

That was too much for her party colleague LaGreca, who exclaimed, "I am not going to eat carrot sticks."

Alba said afterward she thinks Cavanagh made a good point, and that while pastry will probably be included, so will an option for granola bars and fruit. The refreshments will come from the Smithfield Coffee Co., she said, and will be paid for from the council's contingency fund.

Alba has said she plans to bring the paycheck issue to a Charter Revision Commission currently being formed to review the document and suggest revisions. The charter mandates a review every five years.

The nine-member commission, expected to be in place by September, will entertain suggestions for charter amendments to be put on the 2014 election ballot.

The final decision on which suggestions actually make it to the ballot will be the Town Council's.

Alba said she is donating half her council salary to various organizations including the Women's Fund of Rhode Island, which works to eliminate gender inequality, and Rhode Island College.

She said she is hoping for suggestions from the public on where to apportion the other $2,000.