Nine charter changes to appear on Smithfield ballot

Nine charter changes to appear on Smithfield ballot

SMITHFIELD - Smithfield voters will have a say on the town charter in November, when nine amendments to the town's governing document will be put on the ballot.

Following a public hearing during the Town Council meeting on July 15, councilors narrowed down the 19 amendments proposed by the Charter Review Commission, accepting only about half. The questions will be submitted to the Secretary of State's office following the next Town Council meeting, when official language of the amendments is approved.

The following are changes that will be decided on Election Day:

* C-2.10 - Moving the town's annual independent audit start from no later than 180 days prior to the subsequent fiscal year to no later than 30 days.

Town Manager Dennis Finlay said the current situation "just doesn't work."

"We only really need the 30 days to comply with the subsequent fiscal year," he said. "This was one we felt really needed a change to it."

* C-3.01 - Instead of the town manager being appointed "solely on the basis of executive and administrative qualifications," a change would require a candidate to have, at a minimum, a bachelor's degree, with a master's degree in public administration or equivalent preferred, and at least five years experience spent as a senior manager or administrator, with at least five years experience in municipal collective bargaining preferred. The candidate must also have "a demonstrated ability to communicate orally and in writing."

* C-4.07 - Specifying that the town clerk serves at the pleasure of the Town Council "and under the direction of the Town Manager."

Town Council President Alberto LaGreca said in the past, the town has had clerks who thought they answered only to the council.

"It just cleans up a situation that should be cleaned up in terms of responsibility and in terms of direction," he said.

* C-4.14 - Eliminate the Sewer Board of Review and replace it with the Historic Preservation Committee, a seven-member advisory board for the Town Council and Preservation Commission to "promote the identification and protection of historic buildings, districts, structures, artifacts, objects and archaeological sites."

* C-4.20 - Town Solicitor Edmund Alves explained that the majority of the proposed amendment outlining exempt and merit services, appointments and promotions, and a merit system is language from 1994 that was inexplicably removed in the last charter review process. The town has continued to operate following this language, and seeks to get it back in the official charter, he said.

It also seeks to simplify the duties of the three-member Personnel Board, which resident Alfred Costantino pointed out has never been implemented since the last charter change five years ago because of a lack of interest in serving.

Duties of the advisory board, per the amendment, include recommending to the Town Council "a pay plan for non-unionized management employees of the town" and "revisions or amendments to the town's Personnel Ordinance and Personnel Rules and Procedures."

Removed was language about recruitment, hiring, promotions and certifications.

Costantino said because the last Personnel Board was never formed, acknowledging that the town did try to get applicants, voters can have no faith charter changes are being implemented.

"The people voted this in and it's not there," he said. "So what does that tell me? That anything else that comes before the ballot, there's no guarantee it's going to be there because the council's not going to put it in if they don't want to."

Costantino also talked at length about the need for town administrators to have contracts like those in the schools, but LaGreca told him contracts were not part of that night's discussion.

* C-5.02 - Changing the submission of the budget, by agencies including the School Committee, from the fourth Thursday of February to the second Thursday of March each year, in preparation for the Financial Town Meeting.

School Committee Chairman Richard Iannitelli said major line items like salaries, benefits and transportation costs are not known until late April or May, so better estimates can be reached at later dates, like the third or fourth week of March.

"This is heading in the right direction in the eyes of the School Department, but it's only two weeks extended," he said.

Finlay said while town officials agree an extension from the current charter regulation is warranted, he still needs time to create the town budget, which he said must be completed by around April 10.

* C-5.06 - The addition of language that stipulates a motion to reduce the town budget at the Financial Town Meeting must be submitted in writing to the town clerk at least 96 hours prior. The motion can also be made at the public hearing on the budget: If approved by the Town Council, the motion becomes an official part of the FTM; if denied, it can still be submitted to the town clerk.

The actions in this amendment would make procedure for increasing or reducing the budget the same, save for the 80-percent rule, which still only exists for approving budgetary increases.

* C-5.07 - The amendment reads, "Beginning in fiscal year 2016 and ending in fiscal year 2020, the 5 percent undesignated fund balance shall be increased by three-fifths of a percent of the subsequent year's appropriation."

Finlay said this change was prompted by "a strong recommendation from the bond rating service," as 5 percent appropriation "is not the new norm." He said the average is more like 8 to 10 percent, with some communities contributing 12 percent and above.

"They have strongly suggested that Smithfield look to increase it at least to 8 percent," Finlay said.

School Committee Chairman Iannitelli asked the town to consider including school buildings to the fund, so capital reserve funds could be set aside separate from the maintenance of effort amount.

* C-12.04 - The charter currently states that no elected or appointed member of town government can hold more than one such position at a time, but language in the amendment would allow it in the case of a town ordinance.

"It gives the Town Council flexibility," LaGreca said, explaining the change could allow "talented people working for town or on another committee somewhere" to be utilized for a short-term advisory committee.

In the past, he said, officials have had to resign from one board to serve on a short-term board.

The council opted not to include simple word changes or clarifications - like adding "of Rhode Island" after "state," or specifying refuse and recycling duties are part of public works when its description already says "other related functions" - because, as LaGreca said, "I find it uneasy when we clutter the ballot with simple changes."

Also among the rejected amendments:

* Requirements for police and fire chiefs to reside in Smithfield, something Town Solicitor Edmund Alves said goes against state statute.

* Mandate for board rules and journals to become public record, something officials said is already true. LaGreca said he will make sure rules are posted on the town website, and copies available in council chambers.

* Stipulating that a School Committee member who has missed three consecutive regular meetings without excuses must vacate the board, something LaGreca and Iannitelli agreed could be handled in the committee's own rules and policed internally without involving the charter.

At the meeting, LaGreca thanked the Charter Review Commission and its chairman, Michael Flynn, for vetting the document thoroughly and proposing the changes.

"There's a lot of work that goes into it," LaGreca said. "It's all about how to make Smithfield a better place to live based on our charter."