Town charter up for changes this year

Town charter up for changes this year

Council to begin process at meeting Dec. 2

NORTH SMITHFIELD - It's been more than three years since North Smithfield voters weighed in on proposed changes to the town's guiding document - the municipal charter.

And it is time to start the process of amending town laws once again, although this time the Town Council has opted to do it on their own.

Members of the Town Council will take the first steps towards making charter changes at their next meeting on Dec. 2, when all five members of the board have been asked to bring forward a list of potential ideas.

Councilors will have to work quickly to narrow down the proposals and draft language for possible amendments. The changes must be submitted to the General Assembly by March in order for the town to gain approval to put the items on the ballot for voters next November.

Normally, much of the work would be done by an appointed Charter Review Commission, but this time around the Council has opted to nominate themselves to serve as the document's primary reviewers.

"We didn't feel that it was necessary to convene a new entity, a new body to charge them with that," explained Council President John Flaherty.

The charter was last reviewed in 2010, a process that placed eight questions before voters on the ballot that year. The biggest issue in 2010 was a proposed change from an elected town administrator, to an appointed town manager style of government, an idea that voters firmly rejected.

A review of the charter was also previously done by an appointed commission in 2006.

According to Flaherty, many of the changes recommended by both past commissions were not given full consideration because of the limited number of questions that could be placed on the ballot.

"We've got full reports from 2006 and 2010, full of wonderful recommendations for charter changes," Flaherty said. "We thought we could go back and look at what they proposed and come to some conclusions as to what we'd like to put before voters for next year."

One topic up for discussion this time around is the charter language regarding the term of the town solicitor. Currently, the charter dictates that the solicitor's term ends at the same time as the elected council. In 2012, the discrepancy left the town without legal counsel from Dec. 1 to Dec. 17.

"We flew without a legal net for a couple of weeks because the term ends with the council. It didn't give us a chance to interview candidates," said Flaherty.

Another big issue is the timeline for the annual town budget. Currently, the charter states that operating budget requests must be submitted no later than the second Monday in December of each fiscal year to the town administrator by the head of each department.

School Department officials have pointed out that most of the data they need to project their annual expenses is not even available at that time.

"When we budget according to the charter timeline, we're putting our numbers together in September-October," said Supt. Stephen Lindberg. "We have to use what we know at that time and maybe put a small percentage increase in. When we develop it, it's a shot in the dark."

The Committee will be holding a public meeting this Saturday, Nov. 23, which is expected to include a presentation on why the deadline must be changed.

The change was also recommended by members of this year's Budget Committee, who felt that it was unrealistic that their initial report should be delivered to the Council by the "second Monday in April," as dictated in the charter.

"We did recommend that they move it to a later date," said budget board chairman Michael Clifford.

Councilor Paul Zwolenski recommended adding a public workshop to the charter review schedule proposed by Flaherty Monday night.

"I think a lot of folks are going to be interested in this," Zwolenski said.

Council members said they would like to hear from any residents with ideas on needed changes for the charter.

A public workshop on the matter was tentatively planned for Jan. 6.