Commission likely to propose changes in town governance

Commission likely to propose changes in town governance

SMITHFIELD - The Town Council is preparing to appoint a commission that could have a far-reaching effect on how municipal government operates here.

According to Town Manager Dennis Finlay, the council on Sept. 17 will name members of a Charter Review Commission that will spend several months reviewing the structure of local government and debating how to improve it.

The municipal charter mandates a review of its provisions every five years, with a commission's suggestions for amendments to be forwarded to the Town Council.

The council decides which ones will be placed on a general election ballot.

The previous charter commission, headed by businessman Alfred Costantino, proposed 31 changes, 28 of which voters approved in 2008.

But they rejected one of the most significant proposals, to extend the terms of Town Council members from two years to four.

Another major proposal - creation of a three-member personnel board to oversee municipal hiring, set job qualifications, and ensure equal pay for equal work - passed easily, but subsequent Town Councils have never formed the agency, instead leaving the board's functions within the purview of Town Manager Dennis Finlay.

Appointees to the new commission are expected to deliberate until next March or April, drawing on ideas from town employees and the public in time for the council to prepare a list of potential changes for next year's November election.

The council will select nine commission members from a list of 11 candidates who have volunteered for the unpaid positions, including some who are already known for government service.

Among them are three former Republican Town Council presidents, Michael Flynn, John Emin, who served on the previous charter commission; and Richard Poirier. Poirier most recently ran on the Republican ticket for state senate against Democratic winner Stephen Archambault.

Others under consideration are David Fanning, who has previously run for council unsuccessfully on the Democratic ticket; Henry Cipriano, former chairman of the town's Asset Management Commission; John Serapiglia, a former member of the Conservation Commission and former head of the Soil Erosion Committee; and residents Robert Buonaccorsi, Tracy Ahmadian, Bernice Butera, Kelly Carello, and Tyler Choquette.

One issue the new commission is likely to discuss is the so-called "80 percent rule" that makes it difficult to increase any departmental budget from the floor of the annual Financial Town Meeting.

Under the restriction, any motion to increase a department budget must be seconded by 80 percent of those in attendance or it cannot be acted on.

The rule is in place to make it more difficult for special interest groups to increase a budget over the amount recommended by the Town Council.

The regulation came under scrutiny earlier this year because it does not similarly apply to cutting a budget, which is permitted from the town meeting floor by simple majority vote.

The town meeting in June cut a $75,000 cash allotment earmarked for development of a multi-purpose athletic field at Deerfield Park, after neighborhood residents turned out to oppose it at a session attended by only 128 of more than 15,000 eligible voters.

A former town solicitor, Timothy Kane, said at a subsequent council work session that the ease with which spending can be cut from the floor is "a dangerous, dangerous procedure" because it could invite unanticipated wholesale cutting of department budgets.

Also, he said, while motions to increase budgets must be filed days in advance of the financial meeting, motions to cut can be made directly from the floor. Kane said a rule change mandating the pre-filing of budget-cutting motions would inform the public beforehand about which items are to be targeted.

Costantino, who led the previous commission through several months of discussion, agreed that the issue should be looked at because too much ease in impromptu budget-cutting could threaten the town's financial stability.

The lack of council action on a personnel board - in general Republicans have opposed it and Democrats have supported it - has been attributed to several factors, including an apparent lack of response to advertisements seeking volunteers to serve on it.

There were also criticisms that the amendment was flawed because it contained conflicting language and wasn't clear on what jurisdiction the board would have within the School Department.

But former Democratic State Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr. argued otherwise, saying Republican-dominated councils have been thwarting the will of the people in ignoring implementation because voters approved the amendment, 4,720 to 3,533.

Municipal hiring is instead handled by Town Manager Finlay, in conjunction with the human resources office and sometimes, temporary selection committees chosen by the manager.