Whoo-eee. Just got back from the first official meeting of the newly seated Town Council, and the agenda was thick with high-profile issues, the majority of which were kicked a bit further down the road into workshops (for which I have a suggestion up my sleeve).
In a delightful bit of seasonal fun, the Fire Department Santa, who drives around all the streets in town, ho-ho-hoing and giving out candy canes, paid a visit just as the meeting was kicking off. That was the last bipartisan moment of the night.
You know you're off to a rocky start when the Council can't agree on appointing new members to the Tree Commission. And that was just a table-setter.
Bob Gilstein reminded the new Council that the question of a Wastewater Management District vs. a bond issue for sewering the (North End of) town had been studied to death, and with the DEM now breathing down the town's neck, it was time for a decision. Council President Canario thought the recent letter from DEM was an attempt to "strongarm the town into sewers."
Bob Drake, one of my neighbors here in Island Park, gave a forceful and articulate overview of missed opportunities over the past years, and urged the council to answer the right question: "How do we resolve the pollution, as opposed to how do we get the DEM to go away." The last thing you want, he said, is to implement a WMD, force IP residents to upgrade their septics (at a cost of >$15K) and then discover a couple of years down the road they need to pay again for sewering.
Canario rightly suggested that with two new members, there needed to be another workshop to bring everyone up to speed; that will be scheduled for January.
(In the meantime, why not start the discussion over at a new community site Mark Katzman and I have been noodling with -- a blog/forum site for Portsmouth. Not ready for prime time yet, but if you're reading this (and you know who you are), go take a peek: PortsmouthCommunityForum.com. Thoughts, suggestions, participation most welcome.)
Following the Tent Meeting last August, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the Financial Town Meeting, and Councilor Len Katzman proposed asking the Town Solicitor to draft some language that would preserve direct democratic input on the budget, but take it out of the Tent and make it a real vote.
And then (if you can forgive the partisan spin) the efforts began to run out the clock. First, the "independent" on the Council, Karen Gleason, proposed amending the language to be "automatically invoke a vote any time the Town Council budget exceeds the state cap." (When I pointed out to her during recess that this would not address a systematic effort by a future Council to underfund the schools, she replied, "Well, they'd have Caruolo." "Uh...and you'd really want their only recourse to be Caruolo?" I asked.)
Larry Fitzmorris said he was "uncomfortable with the Council amending the Charter," until the Town Solicitor read him the authorizing passage (Section 8, Article 13) of the Constitution of the State of Rhode Island.
Huck Little suggested that we really ought to add the question of why the Town Council has a vice-president to the referendum.
Then Pete McIntyre had the bright idea of adding the sewer/WMD decision to any referendum.
(Get the picture? Add enough crap to push the thing past the '08 budget cycle.)
Salvatore Carcellar, a citizen who had proposed the Charter change in the first place, got up and did a great job at showing what was really at issue:
- Everyone did not get a vote at the Tent Meeting, including our people in the Armed Forces, for which "we should be ashamed."
- The voting process was not anonymous, dividing neighbor from neighbor
- The process wasn't informed -- there was no way of understanding what was at issue, or what impact the proposed cuts would have. "There was only one informed decision that could have been made -- to leave it alone."
Where it all came out was another workshop, to be held January 27th, at which former Charter Commission members and the public will have at the language of a revision. (Already started a forum topic to discuss this one too...)
Solicitor Kevin Gavin urged the Council, since they had not concluded their discussion, to pass it back into Executive Session. James Seveney made the modest proposal that, given the timeframe, it might be prudent to at least schedule a workshop with the School Committee to explore common ground, and man, you would have thought he was proposing that they microwave Mother Theresa.
Larry Fitzmorris reiterated his position that the Town Council lacks the authority to make any changes in the budget, so if they were planning on a meeting with the School Committee to think about any stipulated agreement, they better think again. Town Solicitor Gavin reminded him that state law saw things differently.
In an interesting aside that probably shouldn't have been aired in open session, Karen Gleason said that she didn't want to schedule a meeting "until they hire a legal team and get some legal advice." That leads one to think that the "independent" as well as the Republican/PCC bloc on the council is going to fight to have Gavin recuse himself because he has children in the schools, and run up the town legal bill by hiring lawyers, an additional fee they can lay at the feet of the School Committee.
Nonetheless, the idea of at least looking at a meeting with the School Committee seemed to have enough support, and they'll get back to them prior to tomorrow night's meeting.
Also, I can't resist, another installment in the continuing saga of Jamie Heaney. After the Economic Development Committee presented their report, of which one major victory was securing access to a low-interest 2.6m bond opportunity for wind turbines, potentially sited at the Middle and High schools, Heaney got up and said, "You should involve the school committee." The members of the EDC sort of looked at each other for a moment before saying something like, 'we've been talking to them for months.' As if they were going to have a major proposal for locating a giant freaking turbine on school property and not talk to the committee?
But I digress.