Charter commissioners ‘ignored’ by Town Council regarding four-year terms

Charter commissioners ‘ignored’ by Town Council regarding four-year terms

On Aug. 1, the Cumberland Town Council reviewed the Charter Commission recommendations. The first recommendation was to allow the voters of Cumberland to decide if they wanted four-year terms for mayor, Town Council and School Committee members. The Commission recommended strongly to have the electorate vote on each separately. We wanted to give the electorate the option to choose. Instead, the Town Council disregarded our recommendation and combined all three elected positions as one question. Maybe they felt the electorate would be confused. Maybe they felt the voters would give the mayor a four-year term and not the council or School Committee.

The Commission was made up of four former Councilors plus five other members forming a diverse group of citizens who spent more than nine months reviewing the Town Charter. Our time was donated. We deliberated, reviewed and brought forth recommendations that we felt were in the best interest of our town. We put politics aside and made sure what we recommended was in the best interest of our citizens. Obviously, the Town Council felt they knew better on how to present this issue. I sat at this council meeting and was very disappointed that the hard work we put in was totally ignored.

Our main focus, as I noted to the Town Council when I presented our recommendations back in March, was to bring clarity and eliminate ambiguity on certain sections of our current charter. One item in particular that we have read about in the paper was the ongoing debate on whether the council has the right to hire their own attorney. The current interpretation of the existing charter provision was argued extensively. We felt that this needed to be presented to the electorate and ask them plainly if they felt the Town Council should have the right to hire their own attorney. We wanted to take out the current verbiage that we felt created the ambiguity so the voters could basically say yes or no. Councilor Kane actually stated this during the Council time of discussion.

Question #5 that will be on the ballot, states “Hiring Legal Counsel for the Town”…the issue for the Commission was whether the Council should have the right to hire an attorney rather than using the Town’s Solicitor office for legal guidance. This was our main intent to get clarification and allow the Town’s electorate to say yes or no. Question #5 as presented by the Town Council for the voters to view this November evades the exact question we wanted to get clarification on. Taking out “extraordinary and limited” was not the verbiage we wanted to add clarity to this section of the charter.

Unfortunately, the electorate will not have the ability to make that determination the way this charter change is now phrased.

The other items we recommended were also dissected and some were changed.

Speaking for myself, I feel we did our due diligence and we thoughtfully reviewed these two major issues carefully. I am disappointed in what the council did and I believe the council failed in giving the electorate the opportunity to make critical decisions on their own. The Town Council did not have faith in you, the voter, to determine individually if four-year terms should apply to each sector of our government or whether you wanted the council to spend additional funds in allowing the council to hire their own attorney. They basically said: If you want four-year terms for the mayor…well you get the council and School Committee also.” I can only say that I will be voting no on four-year terms based on the way the council is presenting it to the electorate.

I would also say to the next Charter Commission, really weigh whether you want to put in the amount of time we did and have your hard work ignored.

David Chenevert

Cumberland

Chenevert was the Charter Commission chairman. He is a former Council President and Executive Director of the R.I. Manufacturers Association.