Brady seeks overhaul of town’s main meeting spot

Brady seeks overhaul of town’s main meeting spot

Board also starts process for allowing public input

NORTH PROVIDENCE – The 1950s-style platform that Town Council members sit on as they conduct municipal business could soon be demolished as part of a complete overhaul of council chambers on the third floor of City Hall.

Town Councilor Alice Brady said last week that she’s heard from a number of residents and other council members who believe the town’s main meeting place needs a significant makeover.

Brady said she believes its time for an ad hoc committee to be formed to work on planning the revamp, including getting informal prices from contractors. She said she wants to review the budget to see if the town can afford the work during this 2016-2017 fiscal year or hold off until the new fiscal year starting July 1.

Council member Kenneth Amoriggi questioned what specific issues Brady has with the existing meeting hall.

Brady said she thinks the dais should be deconstructed and brought down to the level of the rest of the room so council members are on the same level as the residents who are speaking to them.

“We’re here to serve them, not to be above them,” she said. She added that she doesn’t think having the council three feet or so above the rest of the room sends an intentional message, “but I think we belong on the same level as our residents.”

Many other communities have ditched “this 50s design” in favor of a modern one-level concept, she added.

Brady said she’s also not a fan of the uncomfortable wooden folding chairs that have been in the chambers for decades. She said the room is also “screaming for more paint.”

Multiple council members will sit with others on an ad hoc committee charged with planning the new council chambers.

Also last week, the council kickstarted the process of potentially allowing members of the public to speak their mind on any topic during council meetings. The council sent the question of whether to allow a public comment period to its ordinance subcommittee. Town attorneys will come up with a proposed ordinance and then refer it back to the committee for consideration, said Council President Dino Autiello.

Autiello said the ordinance committee was set to discuss the matter last summer, but no one from the public showed up to discuss why the council should implement the public comment period. Autiello has been cautious about adding a public comment period, worried that meetings could get a lot longer and that residents won’t get the answers they’re looking for. He has said he prefers having residents contact their council members to get certain matters on the agenda and then coming to meetings to discuss them.

Brendan Snodgrass, chairman of the North Providence GOP, again urged the council to implement a regular public comment period during last week’s council meeting. Like many other communities, North Providence should be encouraging residents to be engaged with their community, he said. Snodgrass said he’s spoken to a number of residents who find the current process of getting an item on the agenda to be too burdensome.

North Providence is one of few communities in Rhode Island with no public comment period for council meetings. In neighboring Pawtucket, public comment periods typically only last a few minutes, but one last week, where dozens of people wanted to talk about the Invenergy power plant in Burrillville, lasted for more than an hour.

Mark Zaccaria, a Republican who serves on various boards in North Kingstown and ran for U.S. Congress twice, explained to council members last week how a public comment period has worked in that town. The issue to keep in mind, said Zaccaria, is that the public can “come from anywhere and say anything,” so it’s important to have a set of spoken rules in place before each public input period.

Council members also need to remember that they can’t answer the comments or questions brought up by participants or they’ll risk violating the Open Meetings Act by talking about matters that aren’t advertised for discussion, said Zaccaria.

Amoriggi asked Zaccaria how North Kingstown officials corral the public discussion if it gets out of control.

Zaccaria said it’s important for the council president to use his gavel to control the meeting. He said if there are a lot of people at a meeting to talk about one topic, it might be up to the council president to limit each person to a minute or two or end the public comment period before everyone has had a chance to talk. In his experience, meetings rarely get out of control, said Zaccaria, and it often only takes a reminder not to be repetitive or to be concise to tighten up the session.

Councilor Steven DiLorenzo asked how often the meetings in North Kingstown turn into “gripe sessions.” Zaccaria responded that it doesn’t happen as often as one might think.

Many of the items residents bring up end up making their way onto agendas for following meetings, said Zaccaria, as officials may not have even known about the issues going into that meeting.