Portsmouth Charter Workshoppers Engage on Issues

Tonight, the Portsmouth Town Council and about fifty citizens engaged in lively discussion around a proposed revision to the Charter to convert the Financial Town meeting to a petition and referendum with all-day voting, but the nearly 3-hour meeting produced no final decisions.

Just wanted to get the 5Ws and an H up there, so anyone who wants to punch out can hit the snooze button. It's been a long time since I wrote news copy in J-school, so that's probably not as tight a lede as Wims or Macris or Rodrigues would come up with, but then, none of them were there. My initial gonzo impulse would be something more like:

For nearly three hours tonight, the Larry Fitzmorris Show (already in progress) took center stage at Portsmouth Town Hall, as the self-proclaimed expert "practitioner of the Town Meeting" demonstrated his contention that "Democracy is always decided by those who show up."

But that fails to do justice to the other folks in attendance, who did their best to represent a balanced perspective. Am I biased? Really? Here's how Fitzmorris kicked off:

"I believe the Council has a deep conflict of interest. The Council does not like the [tent meeting] process, and the Council is now involved in truncating that right. We only have a Town meeting, on average, once every 12 years."

(The Edward Tufte part of my brain can't help but remind us all that you can't take the span from 1983 until now, divide by the number of town meetings, and utter anything but patent bullshit.)

Len Katzman reminded Fitzmorris that the Charter revision was initiated by a citizen, Sal Carcellar. "You yourself, Mr. Fitzmorris, have said that you are no fan of the tent meeting. An all-day ballot would be a better process. This does not prevent redress of any budget issues."

The tack Fitzmorris took then was to argue that a petition-referendum process "dilutes opposition to the budget" because it provides a number of different petitions to vote on, and could result in a plurality of votes carrying the status quo. Since there has, historically, only been one group that ever mounted such a petition, this felt like a straw man to several respondents.

"The existing meeting has a stated requirement for public debate," said Fitzmorris. "An election is not a practical venue for debate."

"If we have a petition with actual numbers," Katzman responded, we could have an actual debate. We could tell the public what we would do, what we would have to cut."

Sal Carcellar got up to speak to the process. "I love the idea of being able to challenge the budget." But, he said, the Tent was undemocratic: non anonymous, not everybody got to vote. "To assert that we have an inclusive process is fiction. This proposal is not perfect, but better. We will turn out more voters with this process than with the tent. I'll put money on that with anyone who wants to bet."

Added Kathy Baker, "I challenge the PCC to say what this is truncating. I've been a voter since I was 18 years old, and I resent the fact that I was not able to exercise my democratic right. I have no idea why the PCC objects to opening this up to more voters."

There was some technical discussion about the RI legalities that box the process. In terms of timing, because the RI State budget is rarely fixed before mid-June, there is a tight timeframe to accomplish a special election without running into candidacy filings in the spring, or general elections in the Fall (and a definite need to resolve a budget so that tax bills can go out.)

Also much discussed was the so-called "Paiva Weed" tax caps, which limit the amount of tax increases by a decreasing percentage, starting with 5.5% next year. That number, it was pointed out, is inclusive of growth. That is, if your growth is 2%, then your tax rate caps at 3.5% "You're going to be in a whole different tax regime," warned Town Administrator Bob Driscoll.

Alan Shers found that particularly troubling, and urged action at the state level. "The issue is that we need more money. Under this law, if we grow, we don't get a benefit. That doesn't make business sense. I'm a member of the redevelopment committee, and we are trying to create tax-positive property. If that's not going to benefit us, what are we doing?"

Karen Gleason kept trying to get her proposal — which was, coincidentally, remarkably similar to one also proposed by Larry Fitzmorris — on the table. After a brief recess, the group picked that one up.

Gleason started by reaming the town solicitor, Kevin Gavin, who had not prepared her version. "I'm terribly disappointed in you." But she described a process of tent meeting, which she is committed to retaining, plus an automatic special election if the approved budget exceeds the state cap.

The Fitzmorris version, of course, went further. Based on the Mass Prop 2.5, it triggers a special election with only one question, up or down on the budget, with a down vote reducing it automatically to the maximum Paiva Weed rate.

Carcellar spoke to this proposal. Since it's based on the tax cap, it "protects not the taxpayer, but rather against the growth of government. What if the DEM put a moratorium on new building until we put in sewers and we had to redistribute that tax burden from undeveloped properties? Or if Carnegie Abbey comes on line and blows the cap? This is not like MA Prop 2.5 which doesn't stifle the real growth of townships."

Fitzmorris got to the nut of the matter: "The purpose of this provision in the charter is an opportunity to limit taxes." [Damn, I should have had that in my lede.]

I got up to point out the item in Fitzmorris's last graf that said no town or school officials would have authority to change, appeal, or alter the results of the election. "Is this specifically meant to preclude a so-called Caruolo action?" [I got hissed before I made it to the podium; wow, I thought, they care enough to hate me. Sweet.]

"Do you think it would make sense to have the Council overriding the process?" said Fitzmorris.

"Are you suggesting we put something in the Charter," said Jim Seveney, "which intends to override state law? Not two months ago, we on this Council took an oath to uphold State law."

Fitsmorris muttered about the state legislature making the laws, and moved on to his other proposal, recall of elected officials.

"No sir, it's not part of this agenda," said Seveney.

"If we truncate the Town meeting, you guys get more power, and the recall is a check."

"We're not going to deal with it tonight," Seveney was firm. It was not included in the agenda, and therefore was out of order. Two nights in a row, Larry was on the wrong end of Robert's Rules.

I haven't even mentioned the delaying tactics invoked by several PCC supporters who want to gear up a full Charter Revision Committee. It's clear that this was only the first round in what promises to be a protracted and painful saga.

School Committee hears gym woes; Carpender counters PCC

Tonight's Portsmouth School Committee meeting started on a great note: the parent volunteers and students in our Hathaway elementary "Journey Through Books" did a presentation on the program. Diane Myers, one of the volunteers, explained the process: kids get a booklet with blank pages, each led off by a different genre, that they fill up with 100 pages of books that they read or their family reads with them. Once a week, they meet with a volunteer at the school and talk about what they've read, making that reading-retelling connection. Ms. Myers's daughter, Erin, showed off the five ribbons she'd won for completing Journey every year since kindergarten. Then, a group of kids from the program went around the room, showing off their books, and explaining it to the Committee and the audience.

Congratulations to Dr. Martin, all the parent volunteers, and the wonderful staff at Hathaway (including Joan Mouradjian, the excellent librarian) for making this all happen. (Okay, so it's Jack's school. I'm very proud of the great work they do there.)

The rest of the agenda wasn't nearly so pleasant. Jack Callahan, a citizen with long-time involvement in the recently completed gym, brought the committee's attention to issues with the HVAC system, which is apparently malfunctioning, with temperature control issues that didn't come to light until recent temps plummeted.

"This could have been avoided if testing and balancing had been done at the end of construction," said Callahan.

Larry Fitzmorris tried to make this the Committee's fault. "I have considerable experience in high technology integration systems. The system has not been integrated; someone failed to do their job. You made too many payments here. You have no lever against them. I was concerned about this all along. The school committee needs to answer for this."

The committee decided to schedule a meeting with the architect, contractor, and HVAC subcontractor next week, and to suspend payment until issues are resolved.

They moved on to subcommittee reports, usually a less contentious area, but Dick Carpender had other things in mind. "Since the election," said Carpender, "I've tried not to go after every point. But silence can sometimes be perceived as agreement. Some of the ads and articles run by the PCC are misleading. They said that the school committee has made no effort to decrease their budget. Not true. B&E said there was 300K in cuts, and those cuts were made. The other thing — an article that said the lawyer for the PCC said that the filing of Caruolo was a subterfuge to increase the base before the tax caps. I have no problem with the PCC's position in the lawsuit, but those comments to me are saying that there isn't any deficit, and that the school committee and B&E are not telling the truth. And that is not serving this community well. I talked to someone from the PCC two weeks ago, and they said that the School Committee was the one dividing the town. I'm not going to say who's dividing the town, but we need to move forward without being accusatory."

Oh, man, it was tasty. And the best part, when Fitzmorris bulled his way up to the microphone and began, "Madam chair.."

"I'm not going to take public comment at this time," said Chair Sylvia Wedge.[Sorry, Larry. This was a report containing only information; see RONR (10th ed.), p.507, l. 28-30]

Fitmorris huffed and blustered at the mike for a minute. "I should have the opportunity to respond."

"We're not going to do that tonight," said Wedge. This gave Jaime Heaney an opportunity for tonight's HeaneyWatch™ quote "As a member of the Finance Subcommittee, those remarks don't represent the Finance Subcommittee."

"I know," said Wedge. "That was a report containing Mr. Carpender's opinion."

I saw Fitzmorris talking up the NDN reporter as the meeting broke up, talking about gym numbers. Guess they want to have a spare bone to gnaw in case Caruolo goes badly for them.

PCC legal wrangling at Town Council

Waiting in the lobby before last night's Portsmouth Town Council meeting, I kept looking at the agenda and wondering WTF was pulling so many PCC regulars. Was it the agenda item on video cameras on East/West Main road to address the pedestrian deaths in the past 18 months? The request to schedule a workshop on waste water issues that the DEM has been been breathing down our necks about?

No, of course not.

They were there to pick at Caruolo, and Karen Gleason and Peter McIntyre launched into grandstanding mode, attacking the process and Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin.

"I wanted to discuss these issues in open session," complained Gleason, "but the School Committee attorney recommended executive session. There has been no meaningful discussion on a compromise settlement. We asked for a reasonable.."

Vice-President Jim Seveney, sitting in for the vacationing Dennis Canario, cut her off. "Let's stick to the status. We're on the edge of our agreement." [In executive session, both the TC and SC had decided to keep discussions of negotiations private.]

McIntyre read from a newspaper account of last week's hearing and said to town solicitor Kevin Gavin, "The judge asked, 'is the Council in favor of education' and you replied, 'Most are in favor of education.' Well I support education, but there has to be a limit to what we pay. Which one of us on the council is not in favor of education?"

Gavin replied that he was misquoted, but McIntyre wouldn't back down.

"Will we have the opportunity to be witnesses in this case?" he said to Gavin.

Gavin cautiously replied that they were not, in fact, at a litigation stage, that they hadn't developed a strategy, and that in American courtrooms, you don't just call people at random, but rather to get specific evidence in. "You're a party," said Gavin, "I don't know if you're a witness."

Next, McIntryre drilled Gavin on his experience in Caruolo cases. "Do you consider yourself an expert? Are you an expert?"

Gavin responded calmly. "The attorneys are not the experts." He described the Caruolo process, from a legal perspective, as being straightforward — presenting evidence from expert accountants. "It's expert-driven," he said, but did not require particular expertise from counsel.

Repeating the lie from her letter to the editor in last week's Sakonnet Times, ("As yet the Town Council has not appointed an attorney to defend the town,") Kathy Melvin got up to complain that the "lack of appointment of legal counsel" was sending a "muddled message" to the town.

"We have engaged a litigator," said Len Katzman, referring to Kevin Gavin.

I finally got up and reminded the Council that Caruolo hearings are public, and urged them to go listen first-hand to what was said, rather than relying on second-hand newspaper accounts.

After the Caruolo discussion, the crowd thinned out noticeably, and I thought the fun was over for the evening, but there was a land mine under agenda item 9. "Request permission to hold a tax sale." Turns out that a resident, who is in litigation appealing their assessment, was there to complain to the Council. "My assessment skyrocketed," they said, "my house is less than 1,000 square feet, on a 5,000 sq. ft. lot, and I have a $600,000 assessment. This is the start of taking my house."

Both Town Admin Bob Driscoll and Kevin Gavin reminded the Council that collecting property taxes is a state law, and that they only present this item to the TC as a courtesy.

But Larry Fitzmorris, smelling an issue, got up to skewer the Council. "Do you know what properties will be in the sale?"

Driscoll pointed out that between now and June 19, most people settle up, enter into arrangements, or find legal means to forestall, so, no, there was no list.

Fitzmorris got indignant. "So am I correct that members of the Council are voting on the tax sale without knowing what properties you are voting to sell?"

Yeah, imagine that. It's almost like the PCC voting to cut the school budget without any idea of what line items they were voting to slash.

Monday catblogging: Welcome Curi

Curi, Jan 22, 2007Welcome Curiosity, Curi for short, the newest member of our family, just two months old.

Jack really wanted to get a "tiger kitten," and we've been missing the late Prid E. Vicious who died last Fall.

We picked him up last Thursday from the wonderful Potter League in Middletown, and are slowly introducing him to Kuro.

He's Jack's kitten, so he takes care of everything ("Except the poop, which Daddy's in charge of," he reminds me.)

Town Charter review meeting Wednesday Jan 24 -- BE THERE

The town of Portsmouth has an opportunity to reform the "Tent Meeting" system which has resulted in our school's financial crisis; this Wednesday, the Town Council will hear citizen input on proposals to turn the process into regular full-day voting.

If you're reading this blog, you know what I think of the current system. Ten percent of the town's electors made an uninformed decision to slash blindly at the School budget, putting us 700k in the hole. We need to be sure this doesn't happen again. The SOS, an apparent majority of the Town Council, and every citizen I've talked to says that change is needed.

90% of life is just showing up. Let's be there. 7 pm, Town Hall.

From a recent SOS e-mail:
On Wednesday, January 24th, there will be a public workshop on the proposed amendment to the town charter to do away with tent meetings. In a nutshell, the proposal is to require specific language on any future petition for a modification to the budget approved by the town council, and that a special election would be used instead of a tent meeting as a means of approving the modification or modifications. It is a simple modification of the charter, affecting only a few sentences.

The PCC has already acted to delay any such action, obviously to take advantage of potential future tent meetings, by proposing a full blown charter review committee among other things. The PCC, and some of the Town Council, will argue for adding all sorts of other un-related and semi-related charter amendments as a means of delay. They will argue that the town "shouldn't rush into anything, should take it's time so that everybody can be heard". The PCC and it's supporters will be present in force at this meeting.

Save Our Schools strongly urges all citizens to show up at this workshop and make themselves heard.

What's proposed:
Read the proposed Charter revisions

BTW...Don't worry, it's linked directly to the content frame (frame?!?) on the Town site, bypassing the godawful home page. Why anyone has to load up a Java menu just to blink at you in 2007 is beyond me -- now THAT'S something I would be happy to circulate a petition to eliminate...

RIDE rules sword pic OK for yearbook

It's over. ACLU & free speech win. Read the excellent coverage over at Newport9.

PCC can't intervene; can file amicus brief

According to today's ProJo, the initial Caruolo hearing yesterday resulted in a rebuff to Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, Inc. The judge denied their motion to join the suit, but he did allow them to file a "friend of the court" brief to be sure that all taxpayers' opinions are fairly represented.

Also reported was the PCC's pre-hearing brief, which said, in part:

In written arguments filed by Wigand and Kyle prior to yesterday’s hearing, the citizens’ group said it suspects the School Committee of filing the lawsuit as a means of “subterfuge” to “override the results of the special Financial Town Meeting and increase its baseline budget for future years.” – via Projo

So this has nothing to do with the acknowledged fact that the Tent Meeting underfunded the schools. It's subterfuge. I see.

No outcome yet from tonight's TC/SC meeting

Swamped by my day job this week, so just a brief update on tonight's Portsmouth Town Council/School Committee meeting: No decision on any Caruolo compromise as of the time they went into executive session about 9:30.

The Council spent a good amount of time exploring the issues, getting legal input both from Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin, and also School Committee attorney Stephen Robinson, who was on hand. There were questions about the "Basic Educational Program," or BEP, and whether the town could cut things above that. (While technically possible, not if it violated existing contracts.)

Dr. Lusi had some updated numbers from December, which, with added Medicaid revenue on the plus and higher SPED costs on the minus, might have changed the bottom line number by what sounded like 90K, before adding in the costs of the program audit. So there was no real wiggle room, which frustrated some on the council.

"Can there be a number between 770 and zero that the school committee could live with?" Asked Council President Canario. "We wanted to do this in an open workshop. We were hoping the school committee would come up with a number." Dr. Lusi replied that the school committee had already made two rounds of cuts -- the first cuts by the council in June, of 1m, and then the Tent Meeting cuts of 1.1 of which, she pointed out, B&E had determined that only about 300K could be made without violating law, regulation, and contract, so that's where the number came from.

It sounded like there were at least three votes for a middle path. James Seveney tried to be reasonable: "Let's not scare people. This is going to happen. There's going to be a supplemental tax bill. We're unbalanced right now and we need to make it right for this year. The schools need the money -- I don't want to give a dime of it to anybody else."

Len Katzman took a similar tack: "I'm not a financial expert. Say it's 770, or whatever, if B&E isn't lying, it's not zero. To save 200k [the estimated legal fees for a full Caruolo action] we can accept the 770 number, because that's where we may end up."

And William West added a note of caution. "If we go to litigation, and the judge rules for the school, the money's gone. That's it. I don't think we're being less prudent by saying we need a stipulated agreement."

If anything comes out of open session, we we won't hear about it tomorrow anyway -- the reporters from both the Sakonnet Times and Newport Daily News left before I did. (I stuck around to hear Karen Gleason poke interminably at the language of the RFP for the Performance audit of the School Department. "If I'm getting too picky, let me know." Dave Faucher, the Finance Director, raised his hand...

ADDENDUM: I sent this to the Town Council via email earlier today.

Mr. President and members of the Town Council:
I heard last night that public comment will not be allowed in tonight's discussion of the Caruolo action, and wanted to take an opportunity to share some thoughts. My apologies to Ms. Gleason and Mr. Little, who do not have e-mail addresses listed.

It is said that when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. I urge the council not to dig our town in deeper and negotiate a stipulated agreement.

We are indeed in a hole. The school year is half over, and instead of being able to focus on the economic realities facing the Town under the tax caps next year, we are bogged down in rehashing last year's budget. Personally, I live in Island Park, and would like to see the Council's time freed to focus on wastewater and sewerage questions.

You have an opportunity to stop the digging now. While I'm not a lawyer, my personal experience with legal proceedings leads me to believe that to contest the School Department's claim effectively, you are going to need to dispute the facts presented in their complaint, chief of which, one would assume, is the budget deficit determined by B&E.

To convince the judge their number is wrong, you would need evidence, such as another audit, at a cost of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars. In addition, if you choose to proceed in an adversarial fashion, you would, perversely, pay the costs of litigation on both sides, which ultimately comes out of taxpayers's pockets.

I respectfully suggest that the Council consider carefully the wisdom of this course of action, and I urge the council not to dig our town in deeper.

And, lest there be concern about the necessity of such an agreement, let me point out that even the PCC admits that there is a significant deficit.

At the November 28 School Committee meeting, immediately before the vote by the committee to pursue a Caruolo Action, PCC president Larry Fitzmorris addressed the committee, arguing that such an action would be an attempt to subvert the decision of the people at the Town Meeting.

I call attention to another thing he said in that public statement. In talking about the size of the current deficit, he said it was, quote, "770 thousand -- which I think is more like half a million." [I was at the meeting, have watched it twice on Cox, and this is as good a transcription as I can make, but it may not be completely accurate]

But note that he did not say, "770 thousand -- which I think is more like zero." Mr. Fitzmorris and the PCC are therefore on the record as accepting that there exists a deficit on the order of half a million dollars.

I think the Town Council can do no less. If even the PCC believes that there is a deficit of this magnitude, then it seems that the Town Council should feel free to enter into a stipulated agreement.

I know these are difficult times and difficult decisions, and I thank you for your consideration, and for all the work you've been doing.

Kind Regards.

Renovations complete...

If you're reading this in RSS, please do click through to take a peek the new look here at hard deadlines. Drupal, the awesome content management system that drives the site, just issued a release candidate for their next version, and since they're confident enough to run their site with it, I guess I can roll those dice.

You should notice snappier performance on many static pages, and, of course, there's a very spiffy new skin. Comments most welcome (one of the new features is a site-wide "contact" link that you'll find in the left-hand nav.)

Visit Drupal.org for more info.

Rehnquist on the bench with diamonds...

"Hunter S." Rehnquist According to an AP report on CNN, former Chief Justice William Rehnquist spent the Seventies on a powerful painkiller called Placidyl, finally going cold turkey during a 1981 hospital stay:

"Prior to his hospitalization, Rehnquist occasionally slurred his speech in his questions to lawyers at Supreme Court arguments. Those problems ceased when he changed medications, the doctor said." — via CNN

While hospitalized, a report from the FBI says, he hallucinated patterns on the hospital curtains and tried to escape in his pajamas, thinking that people in the hallway were plotting against him.

Ah, yes, a hallucinating Justice. The Seventies were a much simpler time.

Hat tip to Shakespeare's Sister for pointing out the family resemblance.